Two bedraggled enlisted men, exhausted after days of dodging snipers and artillery barrages, are awakened to search for a captain who went to a latrine outside the perimeter and got lost in the desert. 'Bleepin' officers will be the death of us yet,'' grumbles one as they resignedly head off into the night.
The moment is both the perfect distillation of every grunt's war, from Thermopylae to Valley Forge to Fajullah, and the perfect summation of Generation Kill, a raucous, raunchy and utterly loving account of life at the bottom of the military food chain.
A seven-part miniseries that debuted Sunday on HBO, Generation Kill is adapted from the nonfiction book of the same name by Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone reporter embedded with a Marine reconnaissance platoon during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
With a cast of outstanding if mostly unknown actors, it offers an unapologetic grunt's-eye view of the military, in which a brass hat is less a symbol of authority than an indelible mark of stupidity, cupidity or both. ''To think I believed the judge when he said the Marine Corps was a superior alternative to jail,'' sighs one Marine after yet another senseless order filters down from headquarters.
A kind of Catch-22 for the millennial generation, Generation Kill documents life inside an armed bureaucracy governed by martinets, morons and maniacs. One officer, nicknamed Encino Man after a cloddish movie caveman, mistakenly calls down a potentially murderous artillery strike on his own men; they survive only because he got the map coordinates wrong. A gunnery sergeant who forgets to order lubricants for the unit's machine guns, leaving them hopelessly jammed by Iraq's ubiquitous sandstorms, offers the men counseling instead: "Remember, I am a certified combat stress instructor.''
Against officers who can mislay a truck containing the unit's entire supply of food and explosives, then bawl out a corporal who lost his helmet during an attack, the men have no weapon but irony. They deploy it to stinging effect, greeting every new cascade of contradictory orders with a deadpan twist of the Marine motto: ''Semper Gumby'' — always flexible.
Rough-and-tumble fratboy humor, in fact, is their defense against almost everything: lousy food, dysentery, malfunctioning radios, errant fire from units of idiot reservists, Dear John letters from home. They posture as racists, loony-left conspiracy theorists (favorite: the mainstream media have suppressed news of the death of J.Lo to avoid a collapse in military morale), right-wing nuts and raving homophobes — especially once the unit is joined by a reporter they enjoy twitting — but it's all bluff. In reality, they divide the world, regardless of race, religion or even nationality, into two camps: The men in the foxholes around them, who've got their backs, and the loathsome POGs, Persons Other than Grunts — that is, everybody else.
Generation Kill's title is mordant wordplay on the Greatest Generation label bestowed on the men and women who fought World War II, a reminder that no matter how great their cause, soldiers achieve it by killing people and blowing things up. It's a realization that comes slowly to the men of Bravo Platoon, who as they train for the invasion seem to think they're at the controls of a video game. ''That was cool,'' says one Marine after machine-gunning a truck during an exercise. "I wonder what it would look like if it hit a person?''
He'll find out soon enough. The real war, when it arrives, is confusing, bloody and maddeningly oblique. After one battle, Bravo Platoon encounters a Marine wandering through a field, mourning a friend whose stomach has been blown to pieces. ''We returned fire and shot a donkey's head off,'' he says desolately. "We didn't see much else.''
If the Marines in Generation Kill sometimes seem callow, why shouldn't they? Most of them are barely out of their teens. It's not fashionable to say so, but so was the Greatest Generation. As American troops fought another desert war 65 years ago, against the Nazis in North Africa, their commanders were horrified by an Army survey that showed the overwhelming majority had no idea what the war was about. The winning entry in an essay contest titled Why I Fight read, in its entirety: "Because I was drafted.''
Generation Kill never condescends to its characters. It's written and produced by David Simon and Ed Burns, the team behind The Wire, HBO's morbid dissection of the criminal justice system's war on drugs, and they've retained The Wire's recurring theme of good people trapped in a bad system.
That's never more apparent than when they're dealing with the rules of engagement, or ROE, the ever-shifting regulations about when and at whom the Marines can fire their guns. In the opening hours of the invasion, the rules are so tight that when a convoy of armed Iraqis blocks the highway ahead, Bravo Platoon can only wave. ''Our ROE states uniformed soldiers only, and they should be firing at us,'' explains a headquarters officer on what it would take to authorize shooting. (It later turns out the men belonged to Saddam Hussein's death squads, hunting Iraqi army deserters.) Within a day or two, the rules have been relaxed enough that young boys tending camels are approved targets.
Even when headquarters stays out of it, the Marines learn, the war is a collection of painful uncertainties calling for split-second, life-or-death decisions. A man spotted through binoculars, 300 yards off — is that a rifle in his hand, or a walking stick? Is that vehicle speeding toward the roadblock driven by a suicide bomber intent on mayhem or a desperate refugee fleeing Saddam?
One night, the lights of a village shimmering with the heat is mistaken for an approaching column of Iraqi armor, resulting in an air strike — again botched by bad map coordinates. ''Eleven thousand pounds of ordnance dropped,'' muses an officer the next day, "and we didn't hit any armor. Didn't destroy any villages, though, either. I guess that sort of goes in the win column, right?''
In the world of Generation Kill, definitely. War, Simon and Burns are reminding us, is a mighty club, powerful but also crude and — for all our modern technology — undiscriminating. ''Make no mistake!'' an officer bellows at the Marines as they assemble for the invasion. ''There will be no bleep-ups!'' Oh yes there will.