'Generation Kill' Captures War's Lulls and Horrors

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 12, 2008

War is often, and aptly, described as long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. Many movies get the latter right. Gun battles in Mogadishu. An ambush in the Mekong Delta. The Normandy landing.

But few films -- and none about Iraq -- have focused so effectively on the humdrum, confusion and unvarnished hilarity of the lost hours waiting for combat as "Generation Kill," a seven-part HBO miniseries (premiering tomorrow night) about the invasion of Iraq. One could chalk that up to the team behind the docudrama.

"We tried to apply a rigor to this film that is more indicative of journalism," said David Simon, who co-wrote and co-produced "Generation Kill" and HBO's gritty drama "The Wire." "And not Hollywood entertainment."

"Generation Kill" revisits the fateful and largely forgotten weeks between March 19, 2003, when U.S. forces barreled across the Kuwaiti border, and April 9, when Saddam Hussein's statue tumbled on CNN and his government melted away.

Sgt. Eric Kocher, who served during the invasion, was hired to make sure the small things were done right. Pant legs are bloused and sleeves rolled, per Marine style. The men -- and they are all men -- keep their rifles trained diagonally toward the ground, rather than waving them with abandon. They shoot in quick bursts, rather than a stream of fire depicted in too many action movies. They sit for meetings on cardboard boxes of Meals Ready to Eat.

"I wanted to make sure Marines could watch this without laughing at how many things are wrong, like they do with most war movies," Kocher said. "I stayed on the actors to make sure they looked right."

Told from the perspective of a reporter "embedded" with the military -- journalist Evan Wright, who covered the invasion from the rear seat of a Marine Humvee and wrote a book by the same title -- "Generation Kill" says virtually nothing about the local population, whose lives were upended by the events it chronicles. In light of all that's happened since, it feels a bit like a well-executed period piece, recounting -- without commentary or hindsight -- an operation whose meaning has changed and significance has diminished over time.

But as combat narrative of one military unit -- the Marines' 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, or "1st Recon" -- this is as authentic as it gets, and far less sanitized than television coverage of the war has been. Viewers will see more mangled bodies of Iraqi civilians in each episode than in a month of network newscasts.

Like Wright's book -- the best of the glut of "I was there" memoirs that emerged after the invasion -- the series unfolds from the perspective of the young enlistees with whom he spent the most time. It begins in the sand-swept desert of northern Kuwait and follows 1st Recon through shootouts and minefields, casualties and leadership crises, sandstorms and myriad changes of the best-laid battle plans. It tells the story of two conflicts: the sporadic fight against a ragtag Iraqi army and the clashes between a colorful group of enlisted Marines and the officers in whom many have clearly lost faith.

Like the invasion itself, for many of us who witnessed it, the most memorable moments in the series are not the sporadic firefights but the conversations -- freewheeling, always profane, and often more insightful and revealing than any interview with an officer -- among teenage enlistees enduring the most stressful of circumstances.

"I kind of wanted to see, like, what it feels like to actually be shot," says one corporal, explaining to his squad why he bravely stood up and returned fire during an ambush.

"How come we can't ever invade a cool country with, like, chicks in bikinis," says another, at a more relaxed time.

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