In HBO's Generation Kill, the dust is endless, and the hostile terrain is marked by one ambush after another. Guns, blood and death are everywhere. After a while, all that seems to matter is movement - breaking camp, lining up the convoy of vehicles and grinding on deeper into the savage frontier.
This is the Iraq war as a postmodern American Western - nasty, profane and existential, steeped in stoicism and fueled by the cowboy courage of brave, cynical and angry young men who are highly trained, oversexed and under fire.
The seven-part miniseries that starts tonight is based on the Rolling Stone magazine articles and book of the same title by Evan Wright. It is adapted and executive-produced at a cost of $55 million by Baltimore's Ed Burns and David Simon, who most recently used the Western genre to explore urban life and institutions in HBO's The Wire.
Baltimore and Baghdad are not such distant cousins, and the Western has nobly served as a structuring device for several winning depictions of war, such as Michael Cimino's 1978 journey back to Vietnam in The Deer Hunter. But based on the five hours made available by HBO, Generation Kill has neither the scope nor the psychic resonance of epic Vietnam films such as The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now.
There is, however, plenty of action, as well as a genuine sense of being on the ground in the sandblasted confusion of battle with guns booming, helicopter blades thwacking and always the sound of radios crackling in the background with military cross talk and confusion. And maybe, the lack of depth is more a matter of the writers being true to the Iraq experience than a failure on their part to discern deeper meanings from the subject matter.
Generation Kill follows an elite unit of Marines during the first 40 days of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In Humvees and other armored vehicles, they were in the lead of a blitzkrieg-like attack strategy favored by then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Their position on the battlefield was one that Pentagon news releases took to describing as being at "the tip of the spear."
Wright was a reporter embedded with the Marines, part of a 2002 Department of Defense program that involved reporters training with and being allowed to accompany troops entering Iraq, subject to certain limitations on what they could report. Wright, who is played by Lee Tergesen (OZ), wound up with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, one of the nation's most highly-trained and celebrated military units.
But don't sit down with HBO tonight expecting a "Greatest Generation" depiction of these Marines. The men - and they are all men - chronicled by Wright are, in the main, far too pessimistic and self-consciously ironic to present themselves that way.
"See, the Marines are like America's little pit bull," one of the men in the featured platoon, Cpl. Josh Ray Person (James Ransone), tells Wright. "They beat us, they mistreat, and every once in a while, they let us out to attack someone."
The remarks are part of a darkly humorous and bitter critique on the lack of support given these warriors. It includes an account of the driver and sergeant in charge of the lead Humvee having to spend $500 out of their own pockets to try and make their thin-skinned vehicle a little safer and more efficient. They are still waiting for a gun turret shield for the Humvee that they tried to buy off eBay.
Person, Wright and sergeant Brad "Iceman" Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard), who all ride in the same lead vehicle, are three of the characters most quickly and skillfully delineated. A fourth rider in the Humvee, Lance Cpl. Harold James Trombley (Billy Lush), also stands out in the way he comes to embody one of Wright's major themes.
In an illuminating introduction to the book, Wright explains his goal of using the microcosm of this Marine unit - particularly the crew in the lead Humvee - to examine the current generation of young adults as warriors. He wondered how growing up in single-parent homes (more so than any other generation in U.S. history) while surrounded by an inescapable media web of violent video games and TV shows would affect them. Would they be better, worse, the same or different from the Greatest Generation that fought World War II and the baby boomers that went to Vietnam?
The miniseries is not as deft in distinguishing one Marine from another or in providing the generational context found in the book. But some viewers will likely get the latter from the title.
By and large, the Marines in Generation Kill are portrayed as multidimensional human beings, and not psychos or saints. Some of the most powerful moments in the miniseries involve the Marines bearing witness to the results of what U.S. military bullets and bombs have done to innocent civilians, especially children - often as the result of a foolish mistake made by officers in command.
There is a near-perfect symmetry between the sensibility of Wright's book and the work of Simon and Burns. Anyone who has seen even one hour of The Wire or HBO's The Corner knows that there is going to be no wholesale stereotyping.
While the miniseries generally hews closely to the book, one of the few examples of literary license taken involves the exaggerated comic depiction of the highest ranking sergeant in the battalion who comes off more like an over-the-top character in the 1960s TV sitcom Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. than a credible character in today's military. But, by the standards of most TV docudramas, the writers have been steadfast in staying true to Wright's account.
Americans have been relentlessly tuning out accounts of the Iraq war in movies, TV series, books and network news. It would be nice to think Generation Kill will change that. But, in the five hours made available, at least, there is not enough emotional power, dramatic thunder or punishing truth in this miniseries to turn that cultural tide.
See more photos from Generation Kill at baltimoresun.com/ generationkill
: Generation Kill debuts at 9 tonight on HBO.