By Martin Smith
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Raw as war – Generation Kill

This article is over 13 years, 4 months old
The military theory of "rapid dominance" or, as it is more commonly known, "shock and awe", was deployed by the US military during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The theory is as simple as it is brutal.
Issue 335

The idea is to achieve speedy, overwhelming firepower and displays of force. This in turn paralyses the enemy’s perception of the battlefield and destroys its will to fight.

The war in Iraq began on 20 March 2003 and ended when George W Bush famously declared, “Mission accomplished,” just 42 days later on 1 May 2003. Generation Kill is an HBO seven-part television series based on the eponymous book by Evan Wright. He was an embedded journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. It was adapted by David Simon and Ed Burns, the geniuses responsible for the greatest television series – period – The Wire.

It is a road movie about war. Beginning in a US military base camp in Kuwait it follows a group of marines as they maraud through Iraq in their Humvees to their objective, Baghdad.

Is Generation Kill as good as The Wire? The simple answer is no. Unlike The Wire there are no multiple storylines and the characters are not as developed or rounded. Generation Kill is like a fly on the wall documentary. Surprisingly, this works on one level. It gives the viewer the feeling of being an outsider looking in on the chaos of war. Unlike The Wire you don’t hear any music – all you hear is the background noise of war, radio transmissions and marines singing inane songs by Wheatus.

But one thing it does have in common with The Wire is that it doesn’t tell you what to think. It takes the viewer seriously and allows you to make up your own mind. This is still television filmmaking of the highest quality. Some critics have compared Generation Kill to another classic HBO series, Band of Brothers, by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. In some ways it is similar. There are the recurring themes that war is hell and of battle-forged comradeship.

But it is the differences between the two series which make Generation Kill so compelling. Regardless of the merits of Band of Brothers, the US paratroopers portrayed believed they were fighting a “just war” against the evil of fascism. The marines in Generation Kill don’t have a moral justification for going to war. Most just sit about looking at pornography high on uppers and Ripped Fuel supplements. Others are seen reading Noam Chomsky or complaining that this is a war for Starbucks and the oil corporations.

They are a generation of warriors fighting their war through the prism of ultra-violent video games, South Park cartoons and cheesy pop songs. Their comradeship is reduced to crude sexist, racist and homophobic jokes. They don’t even believe all the nonsense their officers tell them about being part of the US military elite. One soldier just turns round to his comrades and says, “We’re not professionals, we’re just semi-skilled workers.”

Just like every soldier they are broken down and rebuilt into killing machines. One soldier explains to the Rolling Stone reporter, “See, the Marine Corps is like America’s little pitbull. They beat us, starve us, and once in a while they let us attack somebody.”

And killing Iraqis is what they do best. The casual violence inflicted by the marines on the Iraqis leaves you stunned. In one scene, the company keep a small village under surveillance for several hours. All they see are kids playing football and a woman baking bread. Without any warning an officer orders an air strike on the village. In the blink of an eye it is reduced to rubble. After yet another round of killing of Iraqi civilians, a sergeant tells one of his men, “They are screwing this up. These idiots. Don’t they realise the world already hates us?”

Generation Kill leaves the viewer in no doubt as to who the villains are. But it also shows that these young men are also victims – victims of a society that forces the poor of the US to do all the fighting and most of the dying. Of the 4,421 US soldiers who have been killed in Iraq the vast majority come from low-income families. It’s not just a class thing: black people are proportionately twice as likely to join the army as their white counterparts.

Many of those lucky to return home will also be victims of a system that doesn’t care. Government figures state that 43,933 US troops have returned home from Iraq injured. As of 1 August 2008, 1,214 were amputees and 8,089 suffered severe traumatic brain injuries. Just like the Vietnam veterans before them, these vets are seven times more likely to suffer from mental illness than US civilians.

The US war machine was able to “shock and awe” its way to a military victory in Iraq. But, as Generation Kill shows, while those marines were driving up the highways of Iraq they were sowing seeds that meant they would never win the peace.

Generation Kill is out on DVD


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