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‘Generation Kill’ Captures War's Lulls and Horrors—A Commentary by Jonathan Finer ’09

The following commentary was published in The Washington Post on July 12, 2008.

'Generation Kill' Captures War's Lulls and Horrors
By Jonathan Finer ’09

War is often, and aptly, described as long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. Many movies get the latter right. Gun battles in Mogadishu. An ambush in the Mekong Delta. The Normandy landing.

But few films -- and none about Iraq -- have focused so effectively on the humdrum, confusion and unvarnished hilarity of the lost hours waiting for combat as "Generation Kill," a seven-part HBO miniseries (premiering tomorrow night) about the invasion of Iraq. One could chalk that up to the team behind the docudrama.

"We tried to apply a rigor to this film that is more indicative of journalism," said David Simon, who co-wrote and co-produced "Generation Kill" and HBO's gritty drama "The Wire." "And not Hollywood entertainment."

"Generation Kill" revisits the fateful and largely forgotten weeks between March 19, 2003, when U.S. forces barreled across the Kuwaiti border, and April 9, when Saddam Hussein's statue tumbled on CNN and his government melted away.

Sgt. Eric Kocher, who served during the invasion, was hired to make sure the small things were done right. Pant legs are bloused and sleeves rolled, per Marine style. The men -- and they are all men -- keep their rifles trained diagonally toward the ground, rather than waving them with abandon. They shoot in quick bursts, rather than a stream of fire depicted in too many action movies. They sit for meetings on cardboard boxes of Meals Ready to Eat.

"I wanted to make sure Marines could watch this without laughing at how many things are wrong, like they do with most war movies," Kocher said. "I stayed on the actors to make sure they looked right."

Told from the perspective of a reporter "embedded" with the military -- journalist Evan Wright, who covered the invasion from the rear seat of a Marine Humvee and wrote a book by the same title -- "Generation Kill" says virtually nothing about the local population, whose lives were upended by the events it chronicles. In light of all that's happened since, it feels a bit like a well-executed period piece, recounting -- without commentary or hindsight -- an operation whose meaning has changed and significance has diminished over time.

But as combat narrative of one military unit -- the Marines' 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, or "1st Recon" -- this is as authentic as it gets, and far less sanitized than television coverage of the war has been. Viewers will see more mangled bodies of Iraqi civilians in each episode than in a month of network newscasts.

Like Wright's book -- the best of the glut of "I was there" memoirs that emerged after the invasion -- the series unfolds from the perspective of the young enlistees with whom he spent the most time. It begins in the sand-swept desert of northern Kuwait and follows 1st Recon through shootouts and minefields, casualties and leadership crises, sandstorms and myriad changes of the best-laid battle plans. It tells the story of two conflicts: the sporadic fight against a ragtag Iraqi army and the clashes between a colorful group of enlisted Marines and the officers in whom many have clearly lost faith.

Like the invasion itself, for many of us who witnessed it, the most memorable moments in the series are not the sporadic firefights but the conversations -- freewheeling, always profane, and often more insightful and revealing than any interview with an officer -- among teenage enlistees enduring the most stressful of circumstances.

"I kind of wanted to see, like, what it feels like to actually be shot," says one corporal, explaining to his squad why he bravely stood up and returned fire during an ambush.

"How come we can't ever invade a cool country with, like, chicks in bikinis," says another, at a more relaxed time.

The dialogue -- much of it drawn from the book by Wright, who co-wrote the script -- makes it easy to forget, even for someone who has spent months covering Marines, that these are actors playing real people and not the subjects of a documentary. Like most quotes in my old notebooks from that period, many other conversations among Marines can't be recounted here, replete as they are with homophobia, jokes about promiscuous mothers and relentless discussion of defecation. Their mounting frustrations with a nebulous mission also ring true.

With the notable exception of Nathaniel Fick, a former platoon commander in 1st Recon and the author of his own well-received book about that period, most officers are depicted as either incompetent or craven or both. In one scene, an unbalanced and trigger-happy platoon commander derisively nicknamed "Captain America" shoots an unarmed Iraqi man in the back. In another, the same officer leaps from a berm and tries to bayonet a subdued prisoner.

"It's an interpretation of a book, which is itself an interpretation of events," Fick said in a phone interview, after viewing the series at a screening the producers held for Marines. "If anyone had seen the type of behavior [from Captain America] you see on the screen, he would have been relieved. If I'd been shown the way some of these guys are, I'd sue the pants off them."

He pointed to a scene in which Marines riddle an oncoming car with bullets from about 50 yards away and said that in reality, the car was farther out, making it harder to discern whether it posed a threat.

Other officers from the unit, many of whom were angry about Wright's book, are "pretty nervous" about the television adaptation, said Lt. Col. Michael Shoup, who coordinated air support for 1st Recon during the invasion and is now a "budget weenie" (his words) at the Pentagon. He has posted an extensive, online rebuttal of some events Wright describes.

Simon acknowledged in an interview that "Generation Kill" is "a drama, not journalism" and that some of the dialogue was inferred, rather than overheard, because "the reporter couldn't be everywhere at once." But he insisted that "everything you see in there is rooted in [Wright's] reporting." He added: "Not only did we not do research, but we were rigorous about not re-reporting [Wright's] work."

The series will likely reopen debates about embedded journalism -- a phrase that entered the public lexicon during the invasion. Familiar to those of us who covered the war is the frosty initial reception Wright receives, the grudging acceptance when he doesn't jump ship after a few close calls, and the awkward goodbyes exchanged when he leaves for the chopper home, long before the Marines will.

Both the best and worst attributes of the embedded approach, often criticized for compromising objectivity, are on display here.

On the one hand, "Generation Kill" reduces Iraqis to empty caricatures: a hapless translator, masked gunmen and wailing mothers of the wounded. Interviewing civilians was all but impossible for those who covered the invasion the way Wright (and I) did. Telling someone you're not a fighter doesn't get you very far when you're wearing a camouflage chemical suit and riding in a Humvee.

"What we see of Iraqis," says Ed Burns, Simon's collaborator on both "Generation Kill" and "The Wire," "is that which was done to them."

But "Generation Kill" also should put to rest the notion that hard-hitting coverage by embedded reporters is impossible. The killing of civilians by U.S. forces is depicted with unsparing honesty -- in one scene, a house with children playing soccer out front is engulfed in a fiery blast. So, too, is the rarely discussed topic of dissension in the ranks.

In an exchange that would seem implausibly contrary to the military's rigid caste system had members of the unit not assured me it took place, a company commander asks for input on his leadership, only to be told by a Navy corpsman that he is "incompetent."

As compelling as all that seems, it is far from clear how many people want to see and hear these things. The only other TV series about the Iraq war bombed, as have a succession of films. By the time I left Iraq in 2006, most stories I wrote generated little, if any, response and even my friends had stopped asking how things were going there.

Unlike its predecessors, though, "Generation Kill" focuses on a relatively un-troubling phase of the Iraq experience, before most people turned against the war and tuned it out.

Soon after the invasion, in a speech now remembered for the boastful banner hung behind him, President Bush hailed the operation's historic ingenuity, the likes of which "the world had not seen before." Marines drove vehicles developed for beach landings hundreds of miles across the desert. The 1st Recon, trained to provide surveillance of the enemy, tossed aside decades of doctrine by fighting gun battles in open-top Humvees.

By the end of "Generation Kill," though, there are already signs of trouble ahead. "Unexploded munitions, lack of electricity, no running water, broken phone lines, ransacked hospitals and bandits coming through at night," Fick says, rattling off a list of civilians' grievances he's ill-equipped to solve. "Oh, and they want jobs." At one stage, he and his men are nearly overrun by a mob as they try to provide medical care.

After the invasion, when my editors asked whether I wanted to stick around to see what happened next, it took about five minutes to conclude that the most interesting part of the story was probably over. We now know how that turned out, and I returned two years later to a very different, and far messier, war.

Why then focus on the invasion, given its chaotic wake? "The point was to tell the story of what these particular Marines went through," said Wright, in an interview. "It is a story worth telling."

Many of those same Marines stayed in the fight. Kocher, now 28, was badly wounded in one of four subsequent tours. He suffers sleepless nights and carries shrapnel in his knee. He wrestles with post-traumatic stress.

"I didn't realize it at the time," he said, "but blazing our way north was the easy part."

Jonathan Finer covered the invasion of Iraq for The Post while embedded with the 1st Marine Division and was a correspondent in Baghdad from May 2005 to July 2006.