Generation: Kill, episodes 2 and 3

There’s a moment in the third episode of Generation: Kill when a squad of heavily armed and armored marines comes upon a just-abandoned encampment of (they assume) enemies of some kind. One of the marines pisses in their bag of rice; “depriving the enemy,” as he puts it, laughing in disbelief when his non-com points out that they could have taken the rice themselves. “Haji rice?” The idea is incredible. But as his non-com points out, “sleeping on the ground and living on rice…these are hard men. You guys whine if your MRE doesn’t come with pop-tarts.”

Like The Wire, Generation: Kill is interested in the interface between social systems, in the point where one sociality perceives the only partially intelligible forms and structures through which its others live. It’s massively inferior to the The Wire in this regard, of course; unlike the latter’s heteroglossic narrative ambition to encompass criminals as well as homicide police, Evan Wright’s Generation: Kill has the usual faults of embedded journalism, the total restriction to (and consequent solidarity with) the perspective of the soldiers themselves.   But in moments like these we see the extent to which the American military’s badass-ness is a function of its technological appendages, and the extent to which this becomes the principle of differentiation by which they distinguish themselves from their enemies. They don’t just whine about their pop-tarts, after all; they whine about the missing armor on their humvees, the lack of air support, and the fact that they don’t have tanks to make sure that they are completely (as opposed to just mostly) invincible. And then they troll through town after town, gunning down dozens of hopelessly overpowered guerilla gunmen without taking a casualty.

Apparently the unit that Evan Wright was embedded with was lucky that its strategy of “A. make target out of self, B. Blast shit out of anyone that takes the shot” mostly worked; apparently its commander had a kind of Patton fetish and preferred to drive through towns rather than drive around them, thus getting into (and winning) all sorts of firefights he could have easily avoided. But the point — whether intended or not — is that the American military’s MO is to use vastly superior military technology to wage asymmetrical warfare, and this logic necessitates targeting not the enemy’s ability to conduct war but its ability to live. When the enemy lacks an airfield or a military-industrial complex, when they supply themselves by stealing your armaments or by the black market, and when you have little or no ability to distinguish combatant from civilian, there is nothing to bomb but people, nothing to destroy but their food. Which means, as that episode (“Screwby”) goes on to demonstrate quite explicitly, the rules of engagement inevitably bend to include targeting civilians as a mass: seeing only through their technological superiority, American military forces can only target the things their weapons can target.

To put this in a very particular way, the terror-tactics of counter-insurgency are a function of the technological superiority which enable them: because we must win at all costs — and cannot even conceptualize losing — we will win by whatever means we can do so, radically re-thinking what it means to win. Almost every choice in Generation: Kill is a variation of this dilemma, and they almost always choose the same way: since taking casualties by refraining from committing war-crimes is virtually unthinkable, the question of what should be done gets re-defined to reflect what can be done. And what they can do is kill people. So they do. But this, in turn, produces and necessitates the idea of “the war on terror” (and the figure of the enemy terrorist) as an excuse, legitimization, and displacement of the indiscriminate targeting of populations that we do onto the people we do it to.