Boots on the ground
NEW YORK -- Evan Wright had no idea what he was getting into when he was assigned to travel with the Marine’s 1st Reconnaissance Battalion in the first weeks of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
When Wright, then a correspondent for Rolling Stone, was picked to ride with the special forces unit, the other reporters gathered at the Kuwait Hilton to find out where they would be embedded “looked at me with sheer hatred and envy,” he said.
“I didn’t know what 1st Recon was, but if all of these reporters look so jealous, it must be a good spot,” Wright recalled thinking.
As it turned out, he had an upfront view of some of the most perilous fighting in the early days of the war as 1st Recon traversed Iraq’s Fertile Crescent and reached Baghdad, usually the northernmost American military unit in the country.
Along the way, Wright documented the mixture of excitement, self-doubt and disillusionment that buffeted the group of young Marines as they confronted hidden enemy fighters and inflicted civilian causalities, a story he told first in Rolling Stone and then in his 2004 book “Generation Kill.”
His ground-level reporting resonated with another pair of writers: David Simon and Ed Burns, who produced “The Wire,” HBO’s urban street crime drama. When the cable network decided to make a miniseries out of Wright’s book, Simon and Burns signed on to produce it.
“I thought it was some of the best war reporting I’d read,” Simon said. “If you watch ‘The Wire,’ you know I have a natural affinity for middle management and labor, as opposed to upper management. And that’s the POV of this book -- [the military] is just another institution.”
In “Generation Kill,” a seven-part miniseries that premieres Sunday on HBO, the camera remains trained on the young Marines of 1st Recon’s Bravo Company, elite fighters who specialize in sneaking behind enemy lines.
But 1st Recon was assigned a role for which the battalion had little preparation: leading the charge through the most dangerous terrain in Iraq to divert attention from the main invasion. They drove lightly armored Humvees that many of the Marines didn’t even have a license to operate. They lacked basic supplies such as batteries for their night vision goggles and lubricant for heavy guns.
The result was a chaotic and treacherous push through Iraqi towns brimming with enemy fighters cloaked in civilian clothes.
“Generation Kill” puts viewers at eye level with the battles fought by Bravo Company’s 2nd Platoon, framing the story as a long, dusty road trip punctuated by moments of terrible violence. The series spotlights the Marines’ “Get some!” battle cry, as well as the dark humor they use to cope with war.
Much of the narrative is driven by the conflict between the enlisted men and their commanding officers, whose frequently dubious calls put both the Marines and civilians in danger.
“The growing awareness these Marines had for what they were responsible for and how little they could control is heartbreaking,” Simon said.
Witnessing it all is Scribe, a journalist based on Wright, who rides in the back of the lead Humvee, ducking fire.
Wright, who wrote the screenplay with Burns and Simon, said he probably wouldn’t have accompanied the unit if he had known how dangerous it would be.
“A lot of my persistence in staying there, I chalk that up to my infinite capacity for denial,” he said. “I remember after we got to Baghdad, one day we were going over the Humvee, looking at all the bullet holes, and it was the first time I felt kind of sick. I was like, ‘Wow, this really happened.’ ”
HBO sought to preserve the gritty authenticity Wright captured in the book, shooting in the deserts of southern Africa over nine months. The ensemble cast went through a boot camp run by Staff Sgt. Eric Kocher, one of the Marines profiled in the book.
Those unfamiliar with military jargon may be initially put off by the lack of exposition in “Generation Kill,” an approach that Simon and Burns also used in “The Wire.” Terms fly without explanation: “Assassin Actual” (the radio call sign for Alpha Company’s commander), “Oscar Mike” (which means “on the move”).
“Dropping people into the deep end like that, as we tend to do, if you do it well and you make it compelling, it makes them lean forward and pay more attention,” Simon said.
Added Burns: “There is something there, if you stick with it. We’re not going to take you down a dark alley and say, ‘Well, we’re leaving you.’ ”
Much of “Generation Kill” is devoted to simply showing the individual Marines in their environment. Cpl. Josh Ray Person (James Ransone) belts out Avril Lavigne songs as he drives the Humvee; Sgt. Brad Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard), known as “Iceman” for his steely battle demeanor, fusses over his younger charges like a mother hen.
“In media depictions of the military, we’re either seeing troops as dupes -- they signed up for college money, and now they’re in Iraq getting bombed -- or we see them as bloodthirsty psychos who are dressing prisoners up or murdering people in Haditha, or we see them as the all-American heroes who are there weaving our blanket of freedom,” Wright said. “And none of those is accurate. A success of the show would just be to introduce the public to troops that defy easy labels.”
Burns, a Vietnam veteran, said he hoped the series would awaken viewers to what was being asked of the troops.
“Our military is being used as a hammer for purposes other than it’s supposed to,” he said. “And we should be aware of that. We’re talking right now about doing the same thing in Iran, and we haven’t learned the lesson of Iraq.”
Despite the filmmakers’ critique of the war, they said they sought to keep their personal views out of the production. “Generation Kill” reveals the missteps made in the early days of the invasion but limits its commentary to that of the men who were there.
“If it didn’t become apparent to the men of Bravo, and it’s just something that Evan or David Simon or Ed Burns would love to say, it’s not in the film,” Simon said.
He said he wasn’t worried that “Generation Kill” would share the fate of the Iraq-themed movies that failed to attract substantial audiences.
“I think this one is a little different from others,” said Simon, who called past treatments of the subject “very polite or very polemical.”
“What the quote-unquote average viewer in America thinks -- we’ve always trusted enough of them to follow, as long as we got it right for the people who were living the event,” he added. “And if they don’t follow, they don’t follow. Then we did a story that only we care about.”