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?
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.
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.