Generation Kill is a brilliant seven-part series that looks at the beginning of the 2003 insurgence of American troops in Iraq. Created by the team behind The Wire, it is an unflinching portrayal that is gritty, compelling and thought provoking.
And as with The Wire, each episode bleeds into the other without any recap or allowance to play catch-up. The casual viewer will be left behind, but those who invest in the full series will be more than rewarded with sharp writing and excellent performances. It isn’t easy viewing. Most of the violence is graphic but is necessary to the story and handled in a non-exploitive way. It also lacks many sympathetic characters, with only a handful of characters one wouldn’t run away from.
But that is the series’ greatest strength: its authenticity. There isn’t one military cliché in any of the seven episodes. Women, children and the weak get killed, many times while soldiers look on with glee (while others are horrified) and many of the ‘bad’ characters get away with heinous actions. No soldier is gunned down after the usual-doomed line of ‘I just want to go home’ and much of the bravery that gets rewarded comes from acts best described as ‘foolish’.
And there is little redemption. Only the final moment, played to a Johnny Cash song, shows how strenuous the war has been on the moral of the soldiers and hints at a basic humanity barely glimpsed previously.
It’s also hard to single out any performance because in truth the series works best as an ensemble piece. Most of the characters have at least one moment where the action focuses on them, but the strength comes not from individual play but in how everyone reacts to each other. There are types: privileged fools, angry minorities, optimistic youths.
And there is the key role of a reporter, based on Evan Wright, the author of the Rolling Stone articles the series is based on. Wright is accused of being a ‘bleeding-heart liberal’ and war hater, but he’s always willing to follow the men into battle, and he quickly picks up some of the soldier’s habits. In one of the few funny moments, he manages to gain respect with the troops when he reveals his past work as a writer for Hustler.
Wright and the production team have managed to show how modern warfare has evolved, with an over-reliance on technology and armoured 4X4 transport. Missions are issued for some overall objective that most fail to see, and in the end the victims are the very Iraqi people the soldiers think they’re supposed to be ‘liberating’.
It may not be a definitive statement on the war, especially as it only looks at the first few weeks of battle, but Generation Kill offers brave insights and unforgettable moments. It is easily one of this year’s television highlights.
Aired on FX and available on DVD.