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Generation Kill, its critics and the messy reality of war

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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.”

This was a very bad reason to praise Generation Kill, because it was an inaccurate and unfair assessment of the miniseries’ sense of the Iraq War: the Marines the drama follows kill some civilians, but spare many more. Since Generation Kill is clearly interested in the death of civilians in war, is the above passage merely hyperbole? I do not think so, for Maass’ response to the show suggests something of broader interest: a widely-held and catastrophic misunderstanding of what is possible in war, and hence a broadly defamatory and unjust assessment of anyone who makes war in the modern world.

Maass wrote that Generation Kill “certainly provides abundant evidence of inept preparation. There are not enough batteries for night optics, maps are late in arriving, the Humvees are not armored, and no one in the battalion, aside from its disheveled interpreter, speaks more than a word or two of Arabic. Yet 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 naïve–­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.”

All of the details mentioned above are accurate, as is Maass’ etymology of snafu. His implication seems to be that the American Army has always been grotesquely incompetent, and that in the Second World War it was as madly and needlessly destructive as in Iraq in 2003. In fact, the American armed forces were in many ways more destructive of civilian lives and property in the Second World War than in the Iraq War-their weapons were less accurate, and their strategy more savage. The American armed forces had their share of defects during the Second World War, many of them on display early on, at the Kasserine Pass, and in the fighting in Italy, but others on display most places they fought. How, then did the American armed forces win their share of the Second World War? By gross material advantage, and riding to victory on the back of the Russians? Those are, of course, explanations that have tempted the Germans, along with many others. But the Russians, too, were notoriously clumsy and error-ridden, and eventually more richly endowed with materiel than were their German adversaries. Were the British, with a long military tradition uninterrupted by either Communism or the radical triumph of a commercial society, the ones who fought without blunders? Not in France and the Low Countries and Norway in 1940, nor in Crete the following year, nor in Singapore, or at Arnheim, etc. Perhaps all of the Allies blundered to victory, and only the immensely competent Germans were an Army worthy of the name?

This is not a wholly uncommon view, although it is less common among people familiar with the German Army’s logistical estimates of what would be required for Barbarossa, or for war with the United States (or for that matter, the British Commonwealth), or with people who know anything about the sea-keeping properties of German pocket battleships, or the design history of many German weapons, or the effect of the German officer corps on production decisions, or on the general issue of strategic sanity, etc. Any case for the unique destructiveness of American forces also disappears when we recall not only the German standard for the delicacy with which armies must treat civilian lives and property, but also when we remember the British over Hamburg or Dresden, and for that matter the Russians, anywhere, or the Japanese in any of their conquests, or the Italians in Abyssinia. So by what standard did Maass condemn the American Army, apparently across all of its recorded history? If it is strikingly clumsy and brutal, to whom is it being compared?

To ask this question is to answer it. One has the sense that Maass does not know too much about comparative military history, and that this is a pretty common situation, because his sense that the Americans are madly cruel and ham-fisted is also very common. At a guess, the ignorance that fuels these assumptions is more common now than it was fifty years ago, when most people in the West knew someone who had fought in a war. But war is almost always an immensely difficult enterprise: Clausewitz famously observed, of armies much less massive, much less intricately armed and supplied than ours are, that in war everything is simple, but that the simplest things are immensely hard. Maass reminds us that very few if any journalists who write about war communicate this urgent fact.

Occasionally, however, Maass acknowledged that it may not always be possible to conduct modern war at a higher standard then the Americans conduct it in Iraq:

“…the Marines of Generation Kill set up checkpoints on roads that are used by civilians as well as fighters who are not in uniform. The consequences are not attractive, and these gut-wrenching scenes illustrate the tactics and guesswork that lead to tragedy­–not only for the civilians who are in the wrong place at the wrong time but for the Marines who must live with the awfulness of their lethal mistakes. The battalion I was with killed a number of civilians after storming across a bridge, and afterward, a lance corporal surveying the carnage angrily told me, “How can you tell who’s who? I don’t think I have ever read about a war in which innocent people didn’t die.” Shooting at approaching Iraqis without knowing for sure whom you are shooting at­ this practice began in March 2003 and continues today, because it’s unavoidable with an imperfect military and a confusing battle space.”

So it is. All militaries are imperfect, as are all human contrivances, most battle spaces are radically confusing, and “fighters who are not in uniform” have traditionally been understood to be in violation of the laws of war. Even today the legality of masquerading as a civilian is at best doubtful, and many civilian casualties in Iraq (and other places) are an inevitable consequence of the increasingly practice of irregular combatants scorning their traditional obligations to identify themselves on a battlefield. This does not mean that savage criticism of American conduct in war is impossible, nor that attempts at reform are misguided: attempts to restrain the violence of war are often admirable, and sometimes possible; attempts to insist that modern war can be conducted without error, and without civilian casualties, are mad, and the results demanded impossible. When we demand that armies attempt impossibilities, we are insisting that they fail, and we may unwittingly sabotage the possibility for moderation, and make victory less likely. The alternative to implied utopianism is not a notion that inter arma silent leges: war’s immense difficulty and intrinsic extremity do not mean that we are permitted to do anything we assert is necessary. Some errors are culpable errors, and some soldiers commit war crimes. But we do not make the identification of culpable error (or the punishment of crime) more likely when we assert or imply impossible standards. The television version of Generation Kill, while marred by its aspiration to omniscient hindsight, remains better on this score than are almost all of its critics. Warts and all, it is a splendid piece of work.