"Over There" gets a lot of the little things wrong but does a pretty good job of capturing the core feeling of the war in Iraq -- the ambiguity, tension and grinding difficulty of the mission.
People who haven't been there are likely to enjoy it a lot more than people who have. There are small mistakes that I suspect will be irritating to anyone who has spent time in Iraq. In one scene in the second episode, for example, a soldier sips from a plastic canteen. But I don't think I've ever seen a canteen in Iraq -- everyone sips from water bottles or uses the "Camelbak" backpack-style pouches with nozzles, as indeed do some of the other characters in this show. Nor have I ever seen a soldier ride in an Army vehicle in Iraq with his rifle pointed inward, toward the driver, rather than out the window. Medical evacuations are done by UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, not old UH-1 Hueys. And soldiers don't just mention the 125-degree summer heat of Mesopotamia in passing; they feel it wrench their guts and get woozy and wake up with a medic punching an IV with saline solution into their arms.
And I have one big gripe: The chatter and indiscipline of the "newbie" soldiers in Iraq in the pilot episode just didn't ring true. That may be a dramatic necessity, but it sells short today's Army, which is professional even in the lower enlisted ranks. For all its troubles in Iraq, the Army still trains its recruits well. When I was in a convoy that was bombed and machine-gunned near Najaf a year ago, I remember looking up at the gunner on the Humvee, Pfc. Steve Ratcliffe, who not long before had been a grocery clerk in Sacramento but who reacted to the ambush with poise and precision. He was well prepared for his mission -- and he knew it. For all that, the show basically felt right to me, in its emotions and in conveying a sense of the weight the nation has placed on the young men and women carrying out this mission. And that's the real reason that Iraq vets may feel an urge to turn the channel from this to the baseball game: It hits close to home.
Yes, the pilot episode gets off the ground shakily. It felt a bit like World War II cliches set somewhat awkwardly in Iraq, with its efforts at foxhole conversations in the middle of the night. In Iraq, the more characteristic event would be a bombing or firefight followed by a session of video games back at the FOB, or forward operating base.
But the next episode, about operating a checkpoint, felt a lot more real. I have been through many such checkpoints in Iraq, and I hated it every time -- approaching them with locked-and-loaded machine guns pointed at me by nervous soldiers, or sitting at them with those soldiers and worrying about car bombs coming at me. So there is a lot of promise here -- and that is an impressive start for a show trying to capture today's painful events.
Thomas E. Ricks, a Washington Post reporter who covers the Defense Department and military issues, is currently on leave to write a history of the U.S. military in Iraq.