Monthly Archives: November 2009

Wright’s Style

I found it interesting while reading Generation Kill to compare it to Homicide and The Corner. It seemed to be much more straightforward in its chronological order and its introduction of characters. Wright makes sure, possibly to the point of annoyance, to provide a reminder sentence about who a character is and what we have seen him do before each time he returns to the book. This felt very different than Simon’s choice to reintroduce characters hither and yon without much explanation. To some extent, it was refreshing. I never had to figure out who a character was by flipping back through the book. Wright also defines his vocabulary words, which is helpful to the reader, but certainly not something that Simon does. Therefore, reading Generation Kill was a less confusing experience for the most part than reading Homicide, etc. While in these respects Wright’s style differed from Simon’s, they were similar in other respects. The veiled or not-so veiled critiques of the system are certainly found in both writers’ works. Wright’s choices of quotations also seem very similar in style to Simon. Wright uses dialogue (that he appears not to have had to reconstruct, a la Simon) sparingly, but when he does it is a perfect insight into the war and the soldier’s mind. This dialogue helps Wright to maintain some humor in the work, as Simon does even with grim subject matter. Overall, I thought that Generation Kill was somewhat easier to read in terms of style than Homicide or The Corner, but not in a way that made it better or worse than Simon’s work.

Wright vs Simon

I have to admit that I am much more impressed with Evan Wright’s work than I was with David Simon’s books. Unlike Simon, Wright does not attempt to write himself out of the story and is very explicit about his role in the events and about how he obtained his information. (Notably, he is also not written out of the HBO adaptation.) His work is much more legitimately journalistic because he is explicit about his sources. He specifically writes into the text things like “later so and so told me that he was thinking such and such when this event happened.” I am able to trust what he writes so much more because I can plainly see how Wright relates to the men and to the situations at hand. He takes care to show us the times when he is an outsider and at the same time proves that he really did get close to many of the men and was able to capture their perspectives. I think Wright does an excellent job of sticking true to the individualities of the men too; that is, reading Generation Kill does not leave me with a feeling that all the men feel one way or another about their sutation. While some, like Trombley, are all about “the kill,” others like “Doc” are more sensitive to the incidence of civilian casualties and the horrors of war. In short, I think Wright’s written work is great.

On a different note, I found it interesting how many references there were to films and television shows not only by Wright but by the men. Some examples: Wright writes “it suddenly feels like we’ve stumbled onto the set of Apocalypse Now” (105), Kocher claims his decision to join the Marines was influenced by “watching G.I. Joe on Cartoon Network” (135), Wright describes that “the whole engagement was like one of those cheesy action movies” (143), Person says (of Captain America) “He thinks he’s Rambo” (169), and Captain America quotes a line from Platoon (206). There are references to Black Hawk Down (195 and 211), Saving Private Ryan (225), and even The Matrix (243). I think this is interesting because it shows how much films and television serve as references for us. It’s not war stories they’ve heard from veterans or history books that the marines and Wright are using as references, but rather film and television inspiring them, influencing how they interpret events and sometimes what they say or how they behave.

Generation Kill vs. The Wire

After critically viewing The Wire, I see Generation Kill in a whole new light.  David Simon’s stamp of auteurship is clearly present in the thematic elements of Generation Kill.  For this post I’d like to focus on Simon’s take on bureaucracy in the military.  In The Wire Simon demonstrated the way systematic problems hinder those both in the police department and the drug gangs.  In the department one of the key issues Simon focuses on is the inept handling of everything at the management levels.   This is embodied best by Commissioner Burrell.  To me, the most analogous character to Burrell in Kill is the officer nicknamed Encino Man.  Over the course of the first two episodes he has demonstrated his idiocy time and again.  Multiple times he has failed to inform his lieutenants of orders from “Godfather” leaving his teams less time to prepare and plan.  In a real moment of genius, he also decides to tape over the windows to his Humvee (so the enemy can’t see the light of his laptop) but all he ends up accomplishing is getting the team lost just as they are entering Iraq because he misses a turn.  This motif of commanders’ ineptitude is also represented by “Captain America.”

Captain America is equally as dumb as Encino Man, but in a much more entertaining way.  Just as The Wire was a completely new take on the police procedural, Generation Kill is a unique look at the war genre, and Captain America serves to mock all the absurdities that have become commonplace in war films.  He makes overly dramatic and pointless statements about how “we’re all gonna die” or “we’re sitting ducks out here” (possibly the most tired war movie cliche).  In a commentary on the overemphasis of macho violence in war movies Captain America is referred to with disgust by others when he fires his  AK at a civilian car for no reason.  Overall, it seems Simon has been successful at transferring his style and commentary to a new genre.

Modern Warfare

Through several conversations with my father and friends, I’ve concluded that Evan Wright’s dismal views of modern warfare in Generation Kill are not necessarily unique, and that they may in fact be a continuing trend for future wars. (Of course, I have not proven that Wright’s portrayal of the war is “dismal”, but let’s give me the benefit of the doubt for the time being). For example, my father pointed me towards the newly released and highly anticipated game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”. He had just finished the campaign mode when I called him after I finished Thanksgiving dinner in Seattle. He’s an old school World War II buff, and he likes to indulge in the Call of Duty series whenever my little brothers come home from college with fresh games.

The campaign follows the missions of an elite marine recon group fighting terrorism around the world, only to be used by their high command in an attempt to spark a war between Russia and the United States. The plot works, and the United States is laid to waste by Russian nukes. To cover their tracks, the high command kills all marines involved in the missions to spark the war. Of course, the soldiers did not know they were trying to start a war, they did not truly understand their vague missions to find and remove a terrorist leader. Fortunately (for the game play), several marines evade their assassination attempts and go rogue to find the high command and put them out of the picture. Sound familiar? Probably not, but if you subtract the nuclear bombs and assassination attempts, you might. At it’s very core Modern Warfare is about a group of elite Marines who participate in vague missions for which they are not equipped and are ultimately being used by their high command for a purpose for which they have no idea of.

It seems the idea of “necessary casualties” Wright focuses on in the Marine’s attack on the first city in Generation Kill is a staple of modern warfare stories. The assumption is that soldiers are being used by the institutions to which they belong and serve. The norm of modern warfare, even in the technological age we live in where all information flows exponentially faster than one hundred years before, is to expect to be misused by the institution to which you belong (at least in these two stories).

A quick thought on how video games as a medium can be interpreted by their players. In a recent conversation with my father, he told me, “You know, I’ve been watching [your little brothers] play this game all day. They play like gamers, they do what they have to do to get to the next level or the next achievement point. When I play, I take every scenario seriously. I value stealth over speed. If I die once, I redo the whole level.” When my dad refers to the captain who betrays your character in the game, he refers to him as “the bastard”. I just thought this was an interesting difference in interpreting the medium of video games, the same way one can be sucked into a novel like or simply read it for content.

War Television

Reading and watching Generation Kill made me curious to see what other TV shows about war there were and what characterized them. When we first began to learn about the police procedural we looked at Dragnet so I thought this might be interesting and maybe helpful. I found a site that provides a comprehensive list and description of war films and television.

The first series about war that came to mind was M*A*S*H which was set during the Korean War. It was a dark comedy like the Robert Altman film of the same name. The series was antiwar and aired during the Vietnam War. Generation Kill does not the same humorous tone. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. was another comedy that did not mention the war Vietnam War that was occurring throughout the shows run. Hogan’s heroes was another war comedy series. Generation Kill is a miniseries so it isn’t directly comparable to these long running series but I am curious to see how Generation Kill can be studied among members of the same genre.

Additionally, I was wondering how Generation Kill matched up with other films/TV series about the Iraq war. I have not seen any films about the war and I have read that most Iraq was films have not done well at the box office. What makes Generation Kill different from those works.

Finally there was one particular quote that I though would make for good discussion. In an article for the New York Daily News, reviewer David Hinkley writes “Generation Kill is an anti-war film mostly in the sense that all honest war films are anti-war.” Is this true?

Also, on an unrelated note, here is the ridiculous Marine Corp add they discuss in the second episode. [youtube][/youtube]

Generation Kill

After watching the first two episodes of Generation Kill, it is easy to see Simon and Burns hand in its creation. Like Homicide, The Corner, and The Wire, Generation Kill critically examines one of America’s most fundamental institutions from the inside out. In this particular case that institution is the United States Military. Like all the shows I mentioned before, Generation Kill is an account of a true story, this particular story stemming from the reports of journalist, Evan Wright.  The show also carries some racial themes, examining the way the Americans view and act towards Iraqis and the different racial groups within the military. The show also utilizes an ensemble cast and refuses to sensationalize its story lines with unnecessary action sequences. It presents a view of  the Military that usually does not make it to tv or movie screens, where soldiers are normal people who don’t always act morally and are sometimes inept.  Even in smaller more specific ways the show reflects the past works of Simon and Burns, such as the way the soldiers call Iraqis “hajis”  similar to the way the cops refer to black criminals as “yos.”

One difference with Generation Kill that I found particularly interesting was that Evan Wright did not write himself out of the book, unlike how Simon does not refer to himself much in Homicide and The Corner. Wright always acknowledges his presence in the story and the ways that the soldiers feel about him and what he is doing.

Evan Wright in Generation Kill

I find it interesting that the creators of Generation Kill decided to include the Evan Wright character in the miniseries and that Evan Wright wrote himself into his novel. Compared to the David Simon approach, I like this portrayal. It first helps explain the credibility of Wright’s reporting. We know that he gained trust from the other soldiers (particularly with the MOPP suit incident). But, these friendships also suggest to us that Wright may be bias because he is fond of the soldiers on a personal level and has bonded with them. I think Wright’s character also adds to the situation. Like Bayliss on his first day at Homicide in the pilot, Wright’s naivete allows the viewer to enter the world through him. When he asks a question, the viewer’s inquiries are answered. He allows the miniseries and the novel to explain basic things within the marine world.

On that note, I think the transition from the book to the miniseries is interesting. Watching the first episode and reading the beginning of the book, I noticed that a lot of things that Wright learned through private conversations are converted into public ones. The book does a much better job of explaining where information comes from. For example, the book quotes Fick as discussing his concerns with ROE in private (33). Yet the miniseries has that statement as a public speech. While I like both portrayals, there are clear accuracy questions in the adaptation of the novel.

Generation Kill

The first episode of “Generation Kill” places the spectator in a televisual milieu of social perversion. The patriotic narrative that is predominantly purported within political discourse is rendered an enterprise where disgruntled marines kill for emotional release. At one point marines are represented in a tent where some groups engage in combat and others in perverse slurs, yet other marines pass through the organized chaos uninhibited. The marines are overwhelmingly quick to racial, sexual, and gender derogation, almost as if necessary formalities of war. They are conscious of their devalued disposition, citing the army receives abundant funding, but the marines make do with what they have. It is almost paradoxical given the marines are hierarchically configured as the pantheon of military organizations. The soldiers are recurrently castigated for slight infringement of grooming policies adhering to codes that offer no room for individuation. They are aware that the war is filled with conflictions and contradictions, situating them as heroic and at times villainous enactors. Their derogative espousals and homoerotic interactions are  thus rendered coping mechanism for their egregiously violent and repressive environment. They are  “Generation Kill” requiring such villainy to be ubiquitous amongst all soldiers. Soldiers elucidate white capitalist supremacist  undertones that undergird their enterprise but find they can do nothing but adhere to the imperialistic agenda.

Along with marine decorum, Simon and Burns interpolate visuals of capitalist interest within the military. Although lightly, the insertion of skittles, pizza hut, subway allude to the military industrial complex, and corporate profit garnered from war. Additionally cultural references to film and music are often made, even positing the head commander as “The Godfather” of the military ranks. Interestingly, the journalistic component which informs “Generation Kill’s” televisual construction is lessened. More so, journalism is apparent in dialogues of military vernacular and character monologues. Conclusively, this first episode Simon and Burns represent that in war everything is warranted, at times conflictive, and oft devoid of normalized social morals and ethics.

Starting Generation Kill

The most striking similarity between reading the televisual works of David Simon’s The Wire and reading Even Wright’s Generation Kill is their emphasis on how institutions repeatedly fail those they are meant to serve. In The Wire we are presented with a plethora of institutions whose main focus is to ensure the longevity and continuity of the institution itself (or the individuals within them); institutions not necessarily existing because they succeed at fulfilling their purpose in society. In Generation Kill (the book, as I have not yet started the series), we are presented with an eerily similar situation, but within an institution I have always believed to be more cohesive than any other; the US Marine Corps. Of course, the problems presented within the Marine Corps may prove to be systemic through the course of the book, but for the time being, the main issues surround the ideological differences between the soldiers in the field and the upper command and the faulty professional administration of the high command. It’s not hard for me to believe ideological differences exist between soldiers and their commanders; just as they exist between most people who take commands and those who give them. But the administrative choices of the commanders in Generation Kill are presented as being so completely off target I have a hard time believing they were ever made. The decisions made by the command effect the soldiers in such a way that there really isn’t a way for the soldiers to comprehend or make sense of the world within they exist beyond to fight, or to face death with a youthful denial as they are meant to; they exist to serve the whim of a command whose primary focus is their personal longevity.

The high command choses to use the incredibly valuable and highly trained First Recon Marines in a context which they are no way qualified or prepared for; either through training or the equipment they carry. They are sent into the field highly under-equipped, partially the fault of the supplies officer within the troop, but mostly the fault of the high command for supplying the the troop with ragtag Humvee’s with no roofs or doors. They are sent on a mission to use speed and maneuverability in vehicles which none of them are even licensed to operate, and which is completely outside their specialty (recon and stealth missions). The worst part of it all is that the Marine’s don’t even know what their mission is. Still, they continue to fight on in unbelievably challenging conditions. Many choose to accept the conditions they are in, trying their best to “get some” any way they can.

The middle command, the command instructed to stick with the battalion in Iraq who would usually be located at a base camp in any other war, are the middle men between the soldiers are the high command. These men deliver the intel and orders from high command to the soldiers, though they are often kept in the dark as to what their mission is as well. I suspect a useful comparison will be the cops in the Wire to the middle command in Generation Kill, but I will need to get further in the series to tell for sure. The cops in The Wire also enforce the laws and rules of those who make them without fully understanding their purpose. Those who step out and try to do something, like McNulty, are reprimanded and outcast. So far in Generation Kill, the only example that comes to mind is the commander of the attack on the first city in the book who is removed from duty because of his indecisiveness (an indecisiveness caused by the limited intel and resources supplied by the high command).

Generation Kill

The differences between Generation Kill and THe Wire are fairly obvious as the content is almost entirely different. Because of this, I find the similarities much more interesting. The most obvious similarity is the overarching theme of bothe shows, that an institution always harms those that belong to it. Much like the drug gangs and the cops in The Wire, there is a hierarchal system in place for the Marines in Generation Kill. As a result, their individual autonomy is limited and they are forced to do what their higher-ups order them to do. This leads to them being put into situations that are less than desirable. Often times, they are forced into situations that they would much rather avoid. A good example of this is how whenever the Marines seem to want a battle, they are ordered to hold-fire, and combat seems to always come at the least opportune times.

Another similarity that I noticed was that the attitudes of the Marines are very similar to those of the police in The Wire. In order to stay motivated to fight the Iraqis, the Marines dehumanize them to a degree where they convince themselves that they hate the “Hajis.” This is similar to how the police convinced themselves that the drug dealers are a sub-human species that they need to battle. The degree to which the Marines dehumanize the Iraqis is apparent because of the joy that they show upon killing them. Another good example is when they remark in episode 2 that a group of local females are “actually hotties.” This reveals their attitude because they were surprised that they were attracted to the “Hajis,” showing that they never believed that they could have common ground with the locals.

This strategy of dehumanizing the Iraqis may be a coping strategy. War is obviously very stressful, and it is well beyond human nature to kill another human. By viewing the enemies as sub-human, they do not have to deal with the guilt that comes from harming fellow man.

One other theme that I noticed that I wanted to discuss is how the lack of female contact runs the Marines thought processes. Whenever they are not directly engaged in battle it seems that every other remark is about girls. Obviously, it would be nearly torturous to never see the opposite sex. However, discussing women seems to take precident over eating and sleeping. I wonder if this is a realistic representation.