Characterization (or the Lack Thereof) in Generation Kill

Like the other interviews with David Simon that we’ve read, I found Richard Beck’s question and answer session with Simon especially informative and ripe for analysis. I was bothered by Simon’s assertion that he “didn’t care if [the majority of the marines portrayed in Generation Kill] were a blur.” I understand his reasoning that in real-life war soldiers undergo a process of deindividuation and blend with one another. Nevertheless, as someone who views characterization as an essential component of storytelling—particularly in the work of someone like Simon who strives to approximate reality—I’m reluctant to accept any defense of throwing characterization to the wayside as sound. Simon cheapens the rightfulness of our urge to differentiate among different characters by analogizing this task to a quiz testing our reading (or viewing) comprehension. How can we relate to camouflage-clad men veiled by anonymity, and how can we “[f]eel the movie,” as Simon encourages, if we don’t appreciate its characters? What’s more, what is the point of depicting the experiences of actual rather than fictional marines—even their names are retained—if the characters resemble mere “thumbnail sketches,” as Nancy Franklin describes? Doesn’t Simon’s approach contradict his self-proclaimed vow to swear by Evan Wright’s book, to make choices as if the text were his bible? After all, Wright dedicates whole paragraphs to distinguishing individual marines. Indeed, Franklin derives one of her major criticisms from this issue. She writes,

If we got to know any of the characters in “Generation Kill,” the show might be more interesting, or, at least, more memorable. But only a few accidental distinctions set them apart: a raspy voice in once case (an officer who had throat cancer), hair and skin color in others. Some talk more than others.

The final wry statement in the excerpt demonstrates that we must dig to find even minor distinctions. I don’t doubt that Simon’s treatment of character was deliberate, but I don’t believe that his choice is effective. Without adequate characterization, a narrative cannot fully be brought to life. Furthermore, Simon constantly claims that he conveys reality’s complexity, but to deem the marines one and the same is an oversimplification that runs counter to Simon’s alleged ruthless construction of authenticity. While the homogenization of soldiers undoubtedly exists at some level, ultimately it’s an appearance; though the marines act as a singular force, seemingly stripped of their identities on the conveyer belt of the faceless killing machine, in truth, they remain individuals. Surely Simon would have objected to blurring the league of drug dealers in The Wire, so why doesn’t neglecting to isolate the personalities of the marines in Generation Kill fluster him?

All of that being said, I still give Simon credit for challenging viewers by conveying the messiness of war. He explains his refusal to appease “people who want to be told that the world is what they already think it is, or … want to be very quickly told what to think.” Simon effectively communicates that nothing war-related can be compartmentalized, sorted into boxes and clearly labeled, but rather, like in the operations of Baltimore that he portrays in The Wire, entangled interactions shade controversial themes grey, leaving us with no easy conclusions.

On a different note, I was fascinated by one of Beck’s subtle yet meaningful opening remarks. “[Simon’s] speech,” he notes, “is highly declarative. When he became animated, he would sit up and lean forward in his seat.” This observation supports the sense of Simon’s temperament that we’ve received through the aggregate of articles about him that we’ve read. Simon is clearly opinionated and arguably obstinate. The question is to what extent these aspects of his personality show through his work. Though he proclaims otherwise, is he at all susceptible to black-and-white thinking?

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