What Generation Kill gets right about the invasion of Iraq.

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July 18 2008 3:44 PM

Situation Normal

What Generation Kill gets right about the invasion of Iraq.

Generation Kill. Click image to expand
Generation Kill

I hate Skittles. I perfected this dislike while covering the invasion of Iraq, because the gummy pills of sugar and fruit were included in the MREs fed to soldiers, Marines, and journalists who were racing to Baghdad in 2003. On the continuum of foods I can't stand, they are surpassed only by lima beans. But the cameo of a red pack of Skittles in the opening scene of David Simon's new HBO miniseries, Generation Kill, was a welcome sight, because it signaled that the program was going to be faithful to the smallest detail of the invasion I had witnessed.

Premiering last Sunday and running through Aug. 24, Generation Kill also gets the not-so-sugary things right. The program's obsession with the hyper-real extends to the pitch-perfect sound of a Humvee idling and the baggy cut of the Marines' chemical-warfare suits, which made these 21st-century warriors seem to be wearing hand-me-down uniforms. The dialogue is un-Hollywoodized, too—the unfiltered use of foul language and military acronyms made me think I was listening to a replay of what I heard five years ago.

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Yet the highest achievement of the miniseries is the way it unveils the disordered workings of the American military and the inevitable destruction of all objects in its path, including civilians whose only offense is to tend their sheep or drive down a road. With its $550 billion budget and 1.5 million troops, the military might seem a mechanized colossus of precision-guided violence, give or take a few bad apples and errant artillery shells. But if you have served in the military or written about it from the inside, you know that on the unit level it is filled with men and women of vastly different motivations and skills. The Marines in Generation Kill are intelligent and dimwitted, panicked, sensitive, racist, comic, homicidal, brave. It is a wonder when things go according to plan. "You know what happens when you get out of the Marine Corps?" says one of the characters. "You get your brains back."

Even in liberal circles, it has become a convention to blame the Bush administration for bad execution of a good idea (i.e., invading a large Middle Eastern nation). Generation Kill offers a reality-based counternarrative to the critique that was embedded in, for example, No End in Sight. That documentary excoriated Washington for messing up, through poor planning and wishful thinking, an invasion and occupation that, the documentary implied, might have worked. Generation Kill, which is faithfully based on the nonfiction book by Evan Wright, who was embedded with the Marine reconnaissance battalion featured in the miniseries and who wrote some of the episodes, certainly provides abundant evidence of inept preparation. There are not enough batteries for night optics, maps are late in arriving, the Humvees are not armored, and no one in the battalion, aside from its disheveled interpreter, speaks more than a word or two of Arabic. Yet those types of shortcomings, as well as the ineptitude of some members of the unit—a vital supply truck is hastily abandoned in battle, commanders are obsessed with facial hair, a captain orders his men to go the wrong way on a road—are rooted in systemic faults that predate the election of George Bush in 2000. The Bush team was incompetent and naive—the critics are right about that—but the military had more than enough built-in deficiencies to undermine even a well-planned conquest of Iraq. Snafu, which is a military acronym that stands for "Situation Normal: All Fucked Up," did not come out of Iraq; its origins are generally traced to World War II.

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