Ep. 5, A Burning Dog: Dig a hole. Eat. Kill.

First thoughts on A Burning Dog.

Well, first off, it’s safe to say we’ve moved into politics. Encino Man (“Whoo! Whoo!”)  doesn’t quite get it but everyone else does. Fick:

“It’s all on that guy’s passport. Two weeks ago he was still a student in Syria. He wasn’t a jihadi until we came to Iraq.”

Last week’s metaphor, masturbation, was about waste and futility and missed opportunities.  Compared to tonight’s episode, Combat Jack seems like a walk in the park in retrospect.  Person’s Stevie Wonder joke was ironic, given that more than in any ep so far, the blinders have come off.  If there was any doubt of their mission, it’s gone. They are there to drive into ambushes and draw fire.  If there was any doubt about the ineptitude of Encino Man and Captain America, it’s gone.  One’s as dumb as a rock, the other is a hysterical menace. If there was ever any doubt that innocents were going to get blown to bits on a daily basis, it’s gone.  See, when I saw them surveilling frolicking children and old ladies baking bread this time, I thought it was a narrative device to simply heighten the tension.  Which, I guess, it was after all.  Another day, another hamlet obliterated.  Time to dig a hole.

Even Ice Man and Fick are at odds, though they are both coming from more or less the same place, which is that this war is not one of the good ones, is not played by the rules, is not the war they trained for, is not going to be winnable, is not ever going to leave them alone, its dead children haunting their dreams forever. If the assembled clowns running the show don’t get them killed, that is. To Afghanistan, gentlemen!

That thing about being the last man to die for a mistake?  Imagine dying because there aren’t enough batteries? Even though I knew the outcome, that nighttime sequence leading up to the bridge ambush was terrifyingly effective.  Imagine rocking through pitch blackness toward a certain ambush, the dark out your window illuminated only by artillery fire, knowing that the guy driving your humvee can’t see what what he’s doing? No wonder Scribe can’t stop the shakes.

I know I’m flogging this parts of a body idea a little hard but let’s go there again. These guys are all parts of the same body. You see now the importance of calling in the shots, the constant back and forth communication about even taking shits, it’s the nerve impulses that let the body operate effectively. The supplies, and the lack of them, that’s the blood flow. Guys like Colbert, Kocher, Pappy, they’re just the arms, the legs. The officers are the brains.  So these guys have Encino Man at the top, so already their brain is mostly gone. I don’t know the name of the Lt. in Alpha company, the one that called in the massive artillery strike on a bare patch of desert?  At that same level, in Bravo,  there’s Captain America.  No matter how good and steady and reliable his counterpart Fick is, there’s Captain America skittering around, like a bad case of epilepsy, with a little bipolar thrown in for good measure.

Oh man, they are all so fucked.

I’m going to revise that arms and legs thing, just for Colbert. He’s the eyes.  In the book, Wright notes that Colbert, especially, was obsessed with figuring out small visual details in the distance, and the film’s borne that out over and over again.  Colbert watches, looks, sees.  Last night’s ep was about seeing, and not seeing.  How awful and appropriate then, that last shot.  Colbert looking into the face of this war, a dead civilian looking back at him forever, through one eye, the other shot out by one of the Marines on his team.

Drawing conclusions

To say I hold strongly negative opinions of the forces behind the Iraq invasion is an understatement.  Immersing into the world of Generation Kill, it’s been a struggle trying to shoehorn that analysis into this story.

Maass:

…those types of shortcomings, as well as the ineptitude of some members of the unit—a vital supply truck is hastily abandoned in battle, commanders are obsessed with facial hair, a captain orders his men to go the wrong way on a road—are rooted in systemic faults that predate the election of George Bush in 2000. The Bush team was incompetent and naive—the critics are right about that—but the military had more than enough built-in deficiencies to undermine even a well-planned conquest of Iraq. Snafu, which is a military acronym that stands for “Situation Normal: All Fucked Up,” did not come out of Iraq; its origins are generally traced to World War II.

Of course, it is their fault that First Recon was in Iraq to begin with.  Watching Episode 3 unfold, watching that hamlet burn, I was overwhelmed with the thought that one narrative about one battalion and the damage and death they dealt represented a fraction of the total devastation.

More Maass:

Yet the highest achievement of the miniseries is the way it unveils the disordered workings of the American military and the inevitable destruction of all objects in its path, including civilians whose only offense is to tend their sheep or drive down a road. With its $550 billion budget and 1.5 million troops, the military might seem a mechanized colossus of precision-guided violence, give or take a few bad apples and errant artillery shells. But if you have served in the military or written about it from the inside, you know that on the unit level it is filled with men and women of vastly different motivations and skills. The Marines in Generation Kill are intelligent and dimwitted, panicked, sensitive, racist, comic, homicidal, brave. It is a wonder when things go according to plan. “You know what happens when you get out of the Marine Corps?” says one of the characters. “You get your brains back.”

Generation Kill is the opposite of a lecture—the paragraph you just read contains more politics than you’ll get in the entire series. Generation Kill doesn’t insist that the military—George Bush’s, Bill Clinton’s, Barack Obama’s, or John McCain’s—can only get things half-right on its good days. Instead, it presents the untouched messiness and ambiguity of killing in modern warfare. You can draw your own conclusions.

Be sure and read the rest.

Preliminary thoughts/open thread on “Screwby”

I’ll put up a longer post later, but instead of waiting so long this week, I thought I’d just do some thinking aloud about Episode Three, hoping others will jump in with their own thoughts. Lurkers, don’t be quiet.

This was episode was tough going. That feeling after the RCT troops, aided and abetted by Encino Man, obliterate that little hamlet, after that huge wave of flame engulfs the whole blown-up mess?  That’s how this whole episode left me feeling afterward, though I also found parts of it exhilarating. Each episode keeps taking us farther in, and there’s no going back.

Exhilarating?  Oh Jesus yeah, watching those humvees roaring three or four abreast as they race to the airfield — as full of folly and recklessness as that whole mission was, it was thrilling, after watching this outfit plod and rock along through the dust, to see them, pretty much literally, “hellbent for glory.”

Is it just me, or is anyone else confused by how much Cpt. Patterson (the “good guy” captain of Alpha Co.) and Encino Man/Cpt. Schwetje (imbecilic captain of Bravo Co.) look alike?  I am also distracted every time I see Major Eckloff, aka hotheaded Officer Colicchio from The Wire.  “It’s that guy again, what was his name?  Bad haircut dude…”

How much do I love Lt. “I am assured of this.” Fick?  A lot. It’s a tough role because on one hand he’s so young and idealistic but on the other, he’s pure steel. In the book, Fick says something really thought-provoking at the beginning to Wright, about ROTC units on college campuses being essential.  Not because they militarize the university but because the university has a liberalizing effect on the military, which Fick thought could only be a good thing. It’s probably naive of me to think so, but too bad there aren’t more like him in the Marines.

Speaking of things said in the book, at the very end, Wright quotes Colbert as stating a basic truth, about war, and I guess, about humans in general, which is that people who cannot kill will always be at the mercy of those who can and do. The thing about the book and this television series that I find so powerful is that it dismantles a statement like that, the same way it dismantles the stereotypical soldier. As bad as the worst we’ve seen is, it’s difficult to simply condemn these guys as swaggering barbarians wreaking carnage.  They do swagger, they are barbaric, and they do wreak carnage but they are tasked with killing other humans.  Perhaps this is overstating the obvious, but that’s a profound and grave mission. I think the show and the book do a very good job of laying that truth bare, as well as showing that it’s almost impossible to do it the “right” way, at least in Iraq.

Sir, why did you shoot the car?

The entire battalion, along with hundreds of other troops, is rolling through the wide open desert under a clear sky as Episode Two opens. It’s an impressive display of organized power on the move, a six-lane convoy of all manner of military vehicles moving purposefully onward. The scene recalls a passage from the book:

If you were to look at from the air, you’d see a segmented column of American invasion vehicles—Marines in various units—stretching for several kilometers along the highway. Despite all its disparate elements, the column functions like a single machine, pulverizing anything in its path that appears to be a threat.

The Iceman is even moved by the spectacle, talking about how, less than 48 hours into the invasion, here they are “rolling with impunity on Saddam’s highway.”

It’s a great image but it doesn’t last long. The convoy stalls and … cue the herd of goats wandering through the gridlock.  Bitching commences in Iceman’s humvee, about the jam, about other units and their displays of “moto shit,” and about how their much-trained-for bridge mission appears to have gotten shitcanned by the higher ups. The Iceman cuts it short, reminding his team that they are all Marines, and Marines follow orders.

And that is what this episode is about. Officers, enlisted men, and the glue that binds them together. Judgment. Communication. Orders. Discipline. It’s glaringly obvious that without such, the whole testosterone-fueled enterprise would be chaos.

Wright continues:

The cogs that make up this machine are the individual teams in hundreds of vehicles, several thousand Marines scrutinizing every hut, civilian car and berm for weapons or muzzle flashes. The invasion all comes down to a bunch of extremely tense young men in their late teens and twenties, with their fingers on the triggers of rifles and machine guns.

But what Simon/Burns and Co. takes great pains to show in this episode is that it’s not just the green newbies that need reining in, that are the biggest threat to cohesion.  The ones piloting that unified machine, the brain driving the body,  the officers — they are the ones in a position to really fuck things up.  And in this episode, they do. It’s a key issue in the book as well, but  Simon/Burns depart from the book somewhat noticeably in order to front-load this point before their narrative goes any farther.

In addition, some random highlights:

Are there no limits to The Iceman’s awesomeness?

Very glad that Person is not just source of one-liners. Even after just two episodes, I’m liking James Ransome in this role much more than an entire season as Ziggy.

The scene where Iceman is watching the wandering Marine spoke volumes.  A Marine, alone, unfocused, away from the rest of his unit, was as unsettling as some of the more gruesome aftermath shots.

Likewise, the twilight scene in Godfather’s tent as he muses aloud to his gathered officers was poetry, in addition to adding complexity to whole concept of chain of command.

The bridge

More thoughts on Episode 1, and the story as a whole, to span the distance between what we’ve seen already and Episode 2, The Cradle of Civilization, airing tonight.

Lynette mentions upstairs that GK “is no Wire,” and true that.  And on the whole, I think that’s good.  Things end, things change. There are lots of stories we need to hear.  But we want some kind of map, some way in, so we look for connections, or at least, that’s what I find myself doing.  It’s impossible not to compare and contrast, and right up front we see our testosterone-fueled anti-heroes in Generation Kill treading along some seemingly familiar Simon/Burns ground: the futility of the individual actor in a larger scheme dictated by forces beyond his control.

As we all know by heart now, the thematic structure of The Wire was tragedy: whatever actions the characters took to triumph or make sure someone else fell, were, more often than not, confounded by the larger truth:  the game was rigged. There were a few villains in The Wire, I’d argue there was at least one hero, Bubbles, and most everyone else was in the gray zones between. Their moral differences and character traits served to move the story along, but few of them could be classified as heroes in the literary sense, few fought and triumphed against the larger system. Bunk and Omar had their codes, they understood the system, the game, and chose to hew to their own code of behavior, and that made them admirable, made them stand out, apart from the other poor slobs that were pawns in the hands of the gods, the post-modern institutions Simon often refers to. As for the other characters, some were fatalists, some were opportunists, some were completely unwitting, but in the grand scheme of The Wire, everyone was a just a player on the chessboard.

So, what about our soldiers, and their officers, in Generation Kill?  One of the points made by Evan Wright early on in his book, and I think we’ve seen it already in Episode 1, is that the Marine knows his place in the scheme of things, which is as a tool, a cog in a larger machine, a member of a pack — “Mission accomplishment first, then troop welfare.”  Unlike the futility experienced by our Wire characters who were pawns in a game they often didn’t understand, I would say our Marine are liberated by this, and I think that’s a key, one of them,  to our map.

Continue reading

Reading Generation Kill

My first thoughts on Generation Kill, after reading about the first eight chapters, is that it’s a perfect Simon vehicle…a huge cast of characters who are hard to tell apart, have alien vocabularies and customs which you must learn before you can figure out what’s going on, and they cuss like sailors. Or Marines. Same diff in some instances.

It wasn’t hard to figure out which character Ziggy is going to play.

It’s also an excellent book in describing the fog and boredom and frustration of war, as First Recon zips from canceled mission to canceled mission, not really knowing what they’re supposed to be doing and where they’re supposed to go next, because their command structure is completely in the dark about the situation on the ground in the first days of the war trying to establish a bridgehead across the Euphrates at Nasiriyah. A much clearer sense of confusion than I’ve seen in any other war writing, including any of Stephen Ambrose’s books. Possibly only the German film Stalingrad manages to convey the utter lack of control and information vacuum in which the typical grunt operates.

One difference I notice between this book and, say, The Corner, is that Evan Wright leaves himself in the book as a character (albeit largely in the background), whereas Burns and Simon completely elided themselves from their coverage of the Baltimore drug trade. I don’t see Wright in the GK film credits, which makes one wonder, who sits behind Sgt. Colbert in the humvee?

Also, IMDB shows that the beautiful health- and fashion-conscious gayest straight Marine ever, Rudy Reyes, plays himself. This tickles me to death for some reason. It also gives Davis Rogan hope that he’ll get to play himself on the New Orleans pilot, but, heh, I think they should get a really short guy to play him.

Anybody else already read or currently reading GK before the show airs?

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