Generation Kill, reviewed.

What you're watching.
July 11 2008 7:44 AM

Band of Lunkheads

The aggro Marines of Generation Kill.

Generation Kill. Click image to expand.
Generation Kill

We have it on good authority that war is hell, and any trip out of the house will confirm that hell is other people. If nothing else, the seven-part drama Generation Kill (HBO, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET) demonstrates the transitive property of equality. War is other people, it says in adapting Evan Wright's book about the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the Marines—a band of brothers sharing the jumpy tedium and hot terror of invading Iraq.

Prominently, the Marines of Generation Kill also share a broad reservoir of unsavory traits. Granted, shooting, being shot at, and living in fear of a gas attack don't always bring out the best in one's personality. Further, anyone who's ever been one among a pack of young men knows that there's no exaggerating their conformity, their viral sexual insecurity, and their taste for improvising humiliation. And if the experience of a battle isn't mentally disturbing, well then it's not really worthy of being called a battle, is it?

Advertisement

I'm even eager to accept the idea that the men in 1st Recon Battalion are as cocky as all other elitists; as the book has it, "they think of themselves ... as individualists, as the Marine Corps' cowboys." But the characters here, more often than not, amount to cretinous psychopaths. We have a white supremacist or two, some garden-variety misogynists, a majority of experienced xenophobes. All are bellicose (by definition) and bloodthirsty (by necessity), with one expressing regret that he hadn't been around to pilot the Enola Gay.

They protest too much about "fags." They tend not to read anything more substantive than "Beaver Hunt," the readers' wives page in Hustler, and many exhibit perfectly crude minds except at those moments the screenplay wills a snippet of macho wisdom into existence. They're not above half-assed pedophilia jokes at the expense of fourth-graders writing them letters. Despite the first episode's frequent crosstalk and restless camera, this isn't M*A*S*H, and these aren't guys you want to hang out with. As a comment on the sorry state of masculinity in American culture—which offers the ungentlemanly sitcom Neanderthals of the Charlie Sheen type on the one hand and, on the other, the Peter Pans of the Apatow Company—this is not half bad.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Alas, there's nothing to do but hang out with these guys. The creators, who include The Wire's David Simon and Ed Burns, seem to have made a choice to underplay the battle scenes in Generation Kill. It helps, in this effort, that they don't seem to know how to shoot them effectively. The gunfights can feel disorienting in a way that communicates the chaos on the ground but also incoherent and perfunctory in a manner that indicates the priorities on the set. Generation Kill is most interested in the protracted moments before the action and the numb ones after. The series conveys tweaked anxiety, stifling alienation, and, not entirely on purpose, elaborate boredom.

But who will even allow Generation Kill the opportunity to bore him? Wright's book amounted to both a nuanced group portrait of a special-forces unit and a glance, sidelong and appropriately skeptical, at the America that created it. Before it was a book, it was a series in Rolling Stone and offered something akin to actual news value. But, 63 months after the "1st Suicide Battalion" rolled out of Kuwait, watching a leisurely character study about its aggro combatants and the carnage they make isn't a normal person's idea of fun. Generation Kill is too skeptical about authority to entertain neocons or red-meat nationalists and too depressing to delight a good liberal. It plays like it's been built for antisocial boys—armchair heroes in love with guns and in search of demented adventure.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

Are the Attacks in Canada a Sign of ISIS on the Rise in the West?

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Is It Offensive When Kids Use Bad Words for Good Causes?

Fascinating Maps Based on Reddit, Craigslist, and OkCupid Data

Culturebox

The Real Secret of Serial

What reporter Sarah Koenig actually believes.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 23 2014 3:55 PM Panda Sluggers Democrats are in trouble. Time to bash China.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 23 2014 2:36 PM Take a Rare Peek Inside the Massive Data Centers That Power Google
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 23 2014 1:34 PM Leave Me Be Beneath a Tree: Trunyan Cemetery in Bali
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 4:03 PM You’re Doing It Wrong: Puttanesca Sauce
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 11:45 AM The United States of Reddit  How social media is redrawing our borders. 
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.