Generation: Kill, “Get Some”

by zunguzungu

(I had some thoughts on Generation: Kill here some time ago, but now that I’m taking a tour of the Iraq war movie genre, I’m giving the miniseries a more careful going over

It really is The Wire in Iraq, with many of the same problems. What’s good about it is that it brings the same humanizing ethnographic impulse to the genre that The Wire brought to its subject (my thoughts on The Wire and ethnography here, by the way): if its characters are capable of all sorts of repulsive brutality, they are also human beings, who do these things for human reasons. The moments when we see them lined up chanting “Kill!” are horrifying but brief, embedded within (and submerged beneath) the much larger narrative of daily minutia and human interaction that shows these soldiers struggling to live within the structure of socialization that puts them there and sends them forth to do it. What The Hurt Locker renders as transcendently human, Generation Kill shows as squalid and stupid; what The Valley of Elah shows as the dark heart of inhumanity that the fundamental evil of war reduces its soldiers to, Generation Kill re-fashions (like In the Loop, as Mathew Chaney points out) as a kind of male eros gone wrong. They want to go to war and “get some,” in short, because they want to get some, and this is how a misguidance system has misguided them to seek it.

As with The Wire, however, building a narrative structure out of people vs. institutions produces a certain kind of symptomatic occlusion: just as the underlying narrative of “neo-liberalism corrupting real police work” frees The Wire from questioning what the real purpose of police work is, the insanity of the commanding officers allows them to serve as scapegoat for the perversion of military professionalism that, while absolutely a reality of this conflict, deflects attention away from the question of what we actually need a marines for. In what is surely an intentional riff on the clichés the Vietnam war movie genre — in which there is so much narrative conflict between misguided lieutenants and the grunts who know better — the battalion’s mid-level officers are wise and professional mediators between the insane leaders above them and the cowboys that need to be corralled beneath them. The way Daniels stood between McNulty and Rawls in season one, for example, presaged an underlying narrative of the show as a whole: while individual action against the system is doomed and hopeless — and the powers that be (as a function of their careerist mobility) cannot be trusted — what is at stake in the struggle is the professionalism of good police work that Daniels comes to embody. And like the mid-level commanders that are able — like us — to integrate the little picture into the big picture, the mid-level officers in Generation Kill offer the possibility of a humane Iraq war, one in which, among other things, surrendering prisoners are treated in accordance with the Geneva convention.

But this is bullshit. There is no such thing as a humane invasion of Iraq, and there never was. One of the things that’s striking about a documentary like the Brookings Institute’s No End in Sight (or the contemporaneously produced The Green Zone) is that they deeply want to blame Republican leadership for the manifest clusterfuck that the Iraq war manifestly has become. And of course they’re right; as one of the talking heads in No End in Sight points out, there were a hundred ways to screw up this war, but who could have anticipated we’d try all of them one by one? You simply cannot underestimate the incompetence and misguided hubris of the Bush presidency. But just as The Wire ends up by extolling a never-never land of mid-century Fordist capitalism[1] (the same way Michael Moore pretends FDR is some paragon of anti-racism who never interned Japanese-Americans in prison camps or spent four terms not addressing Jim Crow), Generation Kill seems to imply that if we put the professional soldiers in charge, things would get done. If we let good America do the job — technocrats and professionals and (cough) Barack Obama (cough) — freedom would roll and shit. The Green Zone — a movie so incoherent it has thus far thwarted my efforts to blog about it — is much more explicit about this: precisely because Matt Damon is a good soldier, he starts to buck against the lies and mis-uses of intelligence that characterized the Bush bungle-fest of 2003. But a more humane invasion is still an invasion. And treating surrendering prisoners humanely doesn’t change the fact that they’re fled Basra after you leveled it.


[1] It’s a particular kind of problem, and I don’t want to be misunderstood: compared to the world we live in now, the post-war era in the United States can seem like a kind of paradise. But the fact that women and black people were forced to act like sub-human laboring classes was not a bug but a feature of that paradise; along with the fact that a single income household was possible was the fact that women didn‘t work outside the home. And we can’t — as James Ferguson points out — take seriously the idea of going back to those times.