Let’s get this out of the way first; the opening hour of HBO’s Iraq war mini-series Generation Kill is tough to sit through.
Not in the sense of Schindler’s List, with its sharp focus and unflinching look at the horrors of concentration camps, or Saving Private Ryan, in which we witnessed the terror and despair reflected in the eyes the soldiers. And it’s not because of the racist slurs or crude sexual remarks aimed at 4th-grade girls. No, Generation Kill is tough to sit through for a much more mundane reason: it’s a little boring.
Part of this has to do with its cinema verite nature -- it’s not shot as if it were a documentary, but it feels that way nonetheless. You get the sense that the soldiers onscreen know that they’re onscreen, as they toss off bon mots like “You know what happens when you get out of the Marine Corps? You get your brain back.” And maybe this makes sense, given the addition of the Rolling Stone reporter to their unit, for whom they’re showing off. (That writer, Evan Wright, is both a character in this show and the author of the book upon which it was based.)
My brother is in a sergeant in the Army, stationed now in Iraq on his second tour. He’s told me a little about what goes on over there, but most of what he tells me has to do with their downtime -- what they have, what they need, what they want, and what they miss. The soldiers tend to want small things -- new DVDs, reading materials, games, things to help pass the time. And my brother also found that the strangest things become hot commodities: when he was stationed on base, for instance, magnets were in high demand for use on the walls of their Quonset hut bunks.
There’s an abundance of hurry-up-and-wait in an military operation, but it seems to be even more true of modern war, with its technology and its layers of authority. Then there’s the transparency to the outside world and the resulting procedural self-consciousness that goes along with it. Again, this is part of Generation Kill’s thesis, this downtime that seems to set up a huge amount of disillusionment, a healthy portion of confusion and complacency, and no small bit of doubt. All of which, of course, comes out as utter cynicism, thick and hard as their boot soles.
So maybe it makes sense that boredom would become a central theme to any production focused on the Iraq War. What that means to the success of the production itself, however, is another thing entirely; making a mini-series that is even in part about tedium is a tough angle.
Forget the glory of war, the greatest generation, any Band of Brothers. Generation Kill is all about America’s modern military as much as it is about the Iraq War itself. The accusations of poor preparation, insufficient outfitting, and hazy goals are here, just as is the basic daily life of the enlisted man. And there’s no insult meant or felt in showing some of these men at their worst, saying things they’d not want their mothers to hear, or their children to know. But at the heart of Generation Kill is the idea that a nation itself is reflected in its military -- the good intent, the bad impulse, the generosity of spirit, and yes, the apathy of soldier and citizen alike. – Teague Bohlen