A Polaroid of War

Rolling Stone writer Evan Wright walks into a Marines' tent in Camp Mathilda, Kuwait, in March 2003 and is introduced as an embedded journalist. The Marines look at Wright, a sandy-haired man with a knapsack, with a mixture of suspicion and disgust. Then he mentions he used to write for Hustler. One Marine gives him a friendly slap on the back, while another reaches out to carry his knapsack.

"He wrote 'Beaver Hunt?'" asks a Marine, admiringly.

"Oh, shit, he must have those Polaroids of your mom," says another.

Welcome to the Iraq War -- or at least the one lived by Marines of the First Reconnaissance Battalion and Wright, a journalist who spent seven weeks in the Middle East with them during the initial phase of the war. The new HBO miniseries Generation Kill is based on Wright's best-selling book of the same title and is produced by David Simon and Ed Burns, the team behind the The Wire. It features James Ransone (The Wire); Jonah Lotan (24); among others, and it was filmed in Africa.

The producers of the miniseries are faithful to the book: One of the sergeants in Wright’s book, Eric Kocher, acted as an HBO consultant to ensure that details on equipment like Light Armored Vehicles are correct. In his book, Wright explains, as best he can, what the Marines are doing on their missions. The men themselves are often not sure, and this sense of chaos is captured in the show as they fight in skirmishes, set up roadblocks, and look for insurgents. Forget hallucinogenic, Apocalypse-Now-type war films and hippie drugs. Instead, Generation Kill is driven by adrenaline, Ripped Fuel, and Juggs Magazine. In the first episode, a Marine driving a Humvee strikes up an a cappella version of "Lovin You": "Lovin' you is more than just a dream come true … la, la, la." Others join in -- the mood of the show is a buzzy, slightly insane road-trip feel.

The good news is that the show is accurate, with lots of funny lines, South Park riffs, and comical scenes. The bad news is that, even with dead-on realism and one-liners, it’s not good television. The show is one-dimensional. The people behind it may have had the best of intentions: They put a lot of effort into producing a realistic portrayal of war, and they have managed to provide a clear-eyed view of combat. But the film leaves out everything else -- what happens to the men before and after; how they got to Iraq, politically and personally; and what happens to them afterward when they can no longer exist "In the Moment" of combat.

The show doesn't intentionally try to distort reality -- in fact, it attempts to do the opposite, selling the miniseries as the Reality of War. Yet its efforts at hyperrealism seem to backfire. Instead of a true picture of what has happened in Iraq, the show provides only a glimpse of the truth -- a Polaroid of War.

In an early episode, the Marines are caught in a skirmish in the town of Al Gharraf. The battle goes well. Lance Cpl. Harold Trombley, 19, fires a machine gun for the first time during combat -- a moment he has waited for -- and kills an insurgent. None of the Americans are badly hurt during the battle, and afterward they celebrate their success.

It all seems quite mundane. The thing about war is that in the moment it can seem mundane, chillingly so. Over the past four years, I have interviewed dozens of soldiers and Marines who have served in Iraq -- and that is what many of them have told me. But the mundane-ness is only one aspect of combat. As these soldiers have told me, war is so horrible you have to dissociate yourself from what is happening around you, keeping it at a psychological distance, while you are in the midst of it. In this way, you remain calm.

This is what Marines and soldiers do in real life, and that is what they do in Generation Kill. They disassociate. When one of the men accidentally shoots a civilian, he sits, glassy-eyed, in a vehicle after the incident. When two Marines watch a hamlet destroyed, they say little. This happens in war, and this is often how people respond. But you don't stay in that moment. Sometimes you realize immediately what you are experiencing -- the carnage, blood, and screaming -- sometimes, it's hours, days, or even years till it becomes real. That is modern war: There is horror and numbness and sanitized killing, and eventually you start to think about what has happened and try to understand it, as best you can, and live with it.

The most affecting war movies, from The Deer Hunter to Saving Private Ryan, manage to capture the complex feelings of war by hitting you in the gut with searing images of violence as well as the emotional complexity of relationships among people fighting. The producers of Generation Kill go to great lengths to be accurate, and they are unsparing in their depictions of hell: Besides firing machine guns, Marines in a Hummer drive by a severed head left on the road and accidentally shoot a small child when the driver approaches a roadblock. Yet the producers’ efforts to re-create the experience of war feel, in the end, overzealous. Most of the killing happens at a distance, through grainy, greenish night-vision goggles -- just like in real life. As a result, the scenes are oddly unaffecting. People die, and you feel numb. Again -- it is realistic, at least according to the accounts of Marines and soldiers.

The disassociated state of combat is only one part of what happens. There is also horror, shock, remorse, and guilt -- sometimes sooner, sometimes later. None of that is captured, in any real sense, in Generation Kill. Instead, it leaves you with a kind of chilly ennui (each episode is 75 minutes but feels longer). The images don’t stay with you. Instead, it is all distant and chaotic, and it doesn't soak into your skin or have much impact, aside from a somewhat bewildered feeling about what has happened in Iraq.