Generation Kill only makes sense if you've seen The Wire, but not quite for the reasons you'd expect.
The Wire has now joined that short list of television shows whose titles are shorthand for the discerning and informed, like Arrested Development or Freaks and Geeks. Created by David Simon, the HBO series, which concluded this spring, earned a lot of deserved praise for its realism, but the thing that makes it the most true to life is the way its Baltimore police detectives actively want to visit harm upon the bad guys. Yes, they uphold the law, but they're also willing to test its limits in the pursuit of hurting their enemies.
This is what makes Generation Kill—co-written and produced by Simon with his Wire partner, Ed Burns—so amazing: It's about Marines who really, really want to kill Iraqis. Like, more than you ever wanted to do anything. The HBO miniseries follows the 1st Recon Battalion during the first few weeks of the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003 and the journalist who's embedded with them. It's based on the book of the same name by Rolling Stone writer Evan Wright, and it's anything but formulaic. Most war movies tend to be stocked with likable boys who straddle the line between pacifism and cornered fighting, as if they woke up and fell into a war by accident, but the men of Generation Kill are eager with their lethality. In the second episode, one Marine laments that the worst part about the line of corpses scattered next to the passing caravan is that he didn't get to shoot any of them. They aren't just in Iraq to invade it; they want to rack up the body count along the way. What's more, they don't want to do it out of a gushing love of country and commander. They just want to kill because that's what they're trained to do, politics be damned.
It's those two things—an aversion to political discourse and a stark portrayal of honest fighting men—that elevate the miniseries beyond what you'd expect of a modern war tale. The Marines in Generation Kill aren't condemned for doing their job or celebrated for having occasional doubts about the human cost of the war. When one man takes out a Fedayeen with a sniper rifle, he pauses after the clean kill, a brief look of something close to the beginnings of regret on his face. But he's not pushed either way, and neither is the viewer.
It would be the easiest thing in the world to use the moment to make some kind of all-advised and melodramatic point about man's inhumanity toward man; I know this because I've seen the other movies based on the Iraq war, and that's where they always go. If the conventional mid-century war film offered a rousing cheer when an American beat a bad guy, then modern ones demand fealty to the idea that every "serious" moment be treated with a somber tone that belies both the heat of battle and the complexity of those fighting it. Home of the Brave and Stop-Loss are probably the best examples of how current Iraq war stories land with all the subtlety of an IED, using poorly drawn character sketches to preach treacly messages about the horror of war; one encounter with Jessica Biel's one-handed soldier and you'll wish no one had ever made the film in the first place.
But the men and women of Generation Kill are not tools used to deliver a sermon; they're worthwhile people in their own right. Simon does the characters the greatest honor possible by simply playing the story straight, letting the natural drama and chaos of war carry the message better than any monologue he could devise. It would have been easy to make a blatantly anti-war film, full of rousing, corny music and mournful shots of soldiers looking off into the sunset, turning to each other to mutter, "What did I do?" But Generation Kill is smarter than that, and Simon, as always, respects his audience too much to do their thinking for them. He knows you'll get there on your own.
airs on HBO. Episode Four premieres at 9 pm Sunday, Aug. 3.