The Men Behind Generation Kill

The real men behind Generation Kill, HBO's new miniseries about the 2003 Iraq invasion, are, of course, U.S. Marines. The show follows forty-some sergeants, corporals, majors, and other members of the First Reconnaissance Battalion who plan attacks, face enemy fire and search for homemade bombs.

But there are also men behind the scenes: Generation Kill is based on the best-selling book of the same title by Evan Wright of Rolling Stone and produced by David Simon, creator of another HBO show, The Wire. At a screening hosted by Campus Progress in Washington, D.C., Monday night, Simon seemed worn down by discussions of politics and war, saying that his goal with Generation Kill, his first HBO project since The Wire, is to show what life is like for Marines -- no more, no less. Separating politics from war seems, well, unrealistic, but he has a point. Generation Kill is about the experience of one particular group of Marines in a particular combat zone, rather than The War Experience, and Simon has gone to great lengths to make it seem real.

Generation Kill was filmed with professional actors (including Stark Sands of Day of the Dead and Lee Tergesen of OZ, among others) in Africa. Yet every detail, from the contents of a Meals Ready to Eat package to the passages quoted from the Geneva Conventions, seems to have been vetted for accuracy. The result is a series of cinemagraphic snapshots of war: bloody, obscene, and at times breathtakingly beautiful.

I sat down with Simon and Wright to talk about creating the show.


Did your opinions about the Iraq War change while making the film?

I don't think my sense of the war changed. I think the Iraq War is the wrong war at the wrong time and that the strategy of pre-emptive warfare is flawed, morally and strategically. I also think the war is a great tragedy. But I'm getting pretty sick of people grafting their own politics onto the series or bringing their own preconceived notions to it. Eventually, no one will pay attention to these young men and what they are doing.

What did you find most surprising?

I'm impressed by the capacity of these Reconnaissance Marines. When I was 23, I could barely keep my apartment together. Eric Kocher [who is featured in the film and is also an HBO consultant] was leading a team and making life-or-death decisions. I've been impressed by the professionalism of the all-volunteer military.

Should we have a draft?

The draft had myriad problems, and the truth is that the military doesn't want to go back to a draft. The downside is the burden falls on a small margin of the population that has opted in and is disconnected from the rest of America. It allows the country to fight a war that is unpopular for a longer period of time.

There is a lot of beauty in the series -- in one scene, a Marine watches explosions in the sky and says, "It's so pretty."

It's hard to take the romance out of the bang-bang. That's why young men seek it. It's right there along with the horror.

People talk about Iraq fatigue and say HBO is taking a risk with this movie. But you've said you don't care if anybody watches. Somehow, I don't believe you. I guess what I'm saying is if I knew that only 10 people would watch it, would I still want to make it? Yes. And if the Nielsens show that nobody wants to watch Generation Kill, should we not have made it? It's a ridiculous question.”

You say there are two kinds of television viewers: those who lean back on the sofa and watch passively and those who lean forward and think about what they're seeing. This show requires a lot from viewers. You hardly explain anything. It makes people work a little harder, but they earn it and they value it more. By the time you get to Baghdad, you realize there was an awful lot that was correct and you realize that there was an awful lot that was incorrect. If someone is there to explain why you're on this journey, then why are you on it?


The series and your book show things that seem to be war crimes: The shooting of civilians and so on. Was there a negative reaction to your book from the military?

No. The Marine Corps gave me an award. Still, I'm critical of the things that happen in war. I watched [troops] drop phosphorus munitions on what looked to be an urban area, which I believe to be kind of a no-no. The military always does things that are wrong. It would be like this in any war -- there are no good wars.”

But you don't think we should pull out of Iraq.

With Iraq, I have an irrational emotional stake in succeeding which outweighs my anger and hatred of neocon jackasses.

Would you send your children to fight?

I don't have any. I'd send my nephews. My sister will fucking kill me now.

Someone in the film says, "Even Rolling Stone will pick up a gun." Would you?

If we were surrounded in a Black Hawk Down-type situation, sure. They tried to get me to carry a gun. I said no -- I'm not trained. I'd probably shoot someone by accident.

I heard you used to review porn movies for Hustler.

I quit. How many times can you think of synonyms for genitalia?

And this film is all about porn and sex, with the Marines saying constantly that they want to "get some."

I think the Marines are a perfect reflection of their peers. But because it's a war movie, people are like, "Oh, my God, Tom Hanks didn't talk like that in Band of Brothers." War is described as a rite of passage. If we think of it as a rite of passage, it's all very noble. But what it boils down to is a young soldier with a gun wanting to use it.