The Wire, HBO's five season series about (among many other things) drugs, policing and politics in Baltimore, concluded its final season this year, and its enthusiasts-many of them journalists--have been in mourning. Two months ago the first of seven episodes of Generation Kill appeared. A new mini-series made by two creators of The Wire. Generation Kill dramatizes a book by Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone journalist embedded with a platoon of the U.S. Marine Corps' First Reconnaissance Battalion, with whom Wright traveled from Kuwait to Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq.
One of Generation Kill's extraordinary strengths is Evan Wright's ear: his book, and the mini-series made from it, reproduces the banality, the occasionally startling fatuity and the frequent mad, bawdy brilliance of the way the Marines he served with talked. If he invented the dialogue he reproduces, he is a novelist of genius, because no-one in previous American war movies has ever talked this way, and my guess is that he has invented little or none of the dialogue: a friend, also a reporter who was embedded in Iraq, recalls pretty comparable language in the infantry division with which he rode from Kuwait to Baghdad. A weakness of the mini-series of Generation Kill, probably an unavoidable one, is that it adapts the book, published relatively early in the occupation, for the purpose of creating darker and more savage dramatic irony than was present in the original. When Wright wrote, the war had not gone as badly as it would within a couple of years. Underscoring dramatic irony is pretty much irresistible, and when the mini-series was commissioned adapting a book to foreshadow ghastly political and military failure must have seemed like a shrewd and safe bet. In the mini-series, in comparison to Wright's book, relatively more time is spent on civilian casualties and bad officers, a weighting which serves to predict a future which must have seemed irreversible at the time-but less so by late summer of 2008, however, when the series first aired in the U.S. By then the war seemed to be going much better, although in many quarters, journalistic and otherwise, it remained-and remains-unfashionable to say this. It turns out that dramatic irony requires a stable narrative position in historical time, a location from which we are confident we know how things turned out. We are not yet at that point in the Iraq War, although political partisans on both sides are very quick to insist the contrary.
As it happens, a number of critics who had loved The Wire were less than rhapsodic-they seemed more in mourning for The Wire than interested in giving the new show a careful assessment-but one journalist who did like Generation Kill was Peter Maass, a journalist who had himself covered the invasion of Iraq. In a piece published in mid-July on Slate, Maass wrote that a tiny detail in the opening moments of Generation Kill suggested that the miniseries "was going to be faithful to the smallest detail of the invasion I had witnessed", and that "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."