“Bomb in the Garden”
Saying goodbye to Generation Kill isn’t just difficult, it’s impossible.
I recently finished The Wire’s fifth season (partially why I was so late getting to this finale), and the show’s conclusion (like the conclusion of every season) is about reflection: about the journey of these characters we followed for five seasons, and about how their journeys are part of today’s modern American society. And yet, there is that necessary and welcome distance which we also experience: while this is something that does happen in our own society, it is still playing out with fictional characters (regardless of how much we may relate to them in various fashions).
So while I certainly have a new perspective on the drug trade, education, the media, or anything else that the show exposed to me during its run on HBO, I can honestly say that watching that finale gave me some hope: hope that the cyclical process that we follow could potentially be stopped, that the show and its message can serve as a guiding post for the future. It doesn’t paint an idealistic picture of the world Simon and Burns created, no, but its meaning in “reality” is still a bastion of hopefulness for those who choose to view it as such.
But there’s something far more infinite in the tragedy of Generation Kill, the tragedy of a “true story” as told through the eyes of someone who experienced it first hand. Watching this finale was not like saying goodbye to old friends and reflecting on what we can do as a society to change it, but watching with horror knowing what was going to happen over the next five years. Simon and Burns’ gut-wrenching reality check is far worse when it is actual reality, when they are framing our understanding of something ongoing within today’s society. It is downright scary that, five years after the fact, Simon and Burns still found this particular warning necessary, that the problems they outlined throughout the miniseries have certainly not been solved.
As a result, finishing Generation Kill was a process that took some time when we consider that, in the end, we’re not just accepting to end of Hitman 2’s mission with this finale, but the start of our own shattered reality; and while I have numerous kudos to wave in the series’ direction, I will have to say that finishing it certainly is not satisfying. Instead, it is simply scary, and it seems like this is what Wright (And Simon and Burns) intended.
Right off the bat, we have to go to the end montage of the footage shot during the invasion, set to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.” This is not, by the way, the first show to use this song to great effect this season: earlier this year, FOX’s Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles elevated its cinematic qualities with a great scene set to the song. And there are numerous war video montages on YouTube which use the song juxtaposed with images of war, so it’s not as if Simon and Burns’ use of the song is anything revolutionary.
This doesn’t change, though, my intense appreciation of the song, and its relevance here. With the action almost completely over, this was an episode that was about Marines who are forced to make a final decision on where they stand on the actions they have undertaken and the invasion of Iraq. Whether its the idea of Iraq being a nation of people either Very Good or Dead, or the stark realities of medical care and humanity in those small Baghdad neighbourhoods, their views of war and Iraq have changed. It is these nuances that dictate when they stop watching the prepared movie, slowing peeling back to leave only a single Marine transfixed by the screen in front of him.
And while it may seem too simple, that final scene really does provide the most distinct expression of who our central characters are. For Iceman, this isn’t a time of change: he has been our largest voice of disapproval all along, and being cold has been a consistent trait of his Marine experience. The finale has Brad at his most selfless: he is doing paperwork, doing inventory, and sweeping neighbourhoods in search of unexploded ordinance that he can help clear. That he is ordered to stop this is a huge problem: he is the kind of person who always needs to be doing something, and one who is there to do the job and not to necessarily be part of the camaraderie. As a result, it is not surprising that he never watches the video.
But we have seen cracks in the foundation, and he is not some sort of buzzkill – take, for example, his honest concern that Ray isn’t acting like himself, that he is losing some sort of perspective. Brad isn’t one to begrudge the camaraderie amongst his crew (He’s part of the sing-alongs, part of the introspective conversations), but he just isn’t the same as the others. Our few glimpses of a broken down side of Brad have been especially enlightening, or even his speech here about how it is only the solitude of his motorcycle that he misses about “home.” It’s a fascinating character because he’s the ideal Marine: someone who will complete the tasks, who has initiative, and who is capable of seeing suffering and neither ignoring or being consumed by it.
That being said, I don’t think that Sgt. Colbert would want to be Nate Fick – in fact, I’m pretty sure he’d hate it. What Fick brings to the table is that human side, someone whose compassion and logic works in tandem with a sense of bureaucratic authority. I can see why Simon and Burns were attracted to this character, and why they received so much attention: it is someone who is doing what they can with what they have, with a limited amount of hostility as opposed to outright refusal to carry out orders. The issue of Chain of Command was pretty much the entire point of The Wire’s first season, and here we see the same themes: through Fick, we get a true sense that even when good people are in charge there’s always going to be someone above them who won’t, in fact, be as adept.
The two make an extremely good pair because both have resolved to maintain their sense of integrity. For Brad, this means pimping out their Humvee and treating his men in the best way he can. It means bringing forward new ideas, pushing for smarter tactics, and for questioning (but not “disobeying”) orders in an effort to improve the situation. For Nate, it means listening to his men before listening to his superiors, and for picking his battles – his argument to Encino Man is absolutely correct, that a few decisions based on first hand observation which go against “orders” from command do not constitute insubordinate behaviour. Their teamwork is one of the most enjoyable parts of the miniseries, and I hope that it nets serious award consideration for both Alexander Skarsgård and Stark Sands.
But the last two men standing are, in a way, the big story here: watching the movie, it is Tremblay and Ray who stay the longest. Again, it’s impossible to separate James Ransone’s performance of Ray from that of Ziggy in The Wire’s second season. There is something about him that exudes this motormouthed confidence, this absolute chaos that entertains while also distracting from some deeper problems. With no stimulants left to keep up his spirits, keep him as the life of the party, Ray becomes removed from that role here in a way that displays the reason he acts that way, why he is in the Military at all. The show has portrayed Ray as talkative White Trash, but the football game drives it all up: as the group of Marines noted, the “national heroes” are actually the kids who other kids avoiding confronting in high school for being too weird, too dangerous, or any other clique driven social status that excludes people.
So Ray, really, doesn’t know who he is: beneath the facade, there is the kid who gets tackled in football and has to learn to take it from people bigger and more successful than he is. It is the kid who we see fighting back tears experiencing a serious case of Deja Vu after fighting with Rudy on the football field, and the kind of person who seemed more vulnerable in this single hour than in the rest of the miniseries combined. While a lot of the miniseries has dealt with how the war has changed the Marines and their perspectives, these were also flawed and potentially damaged individuals to begin with; this doesn’t remove blame from the conflict itself, but it does remind us of the multitude of potential reasons why tragedy, or ignorance, can happen on the battlefield.
And then you’ve got Tremblay. Billy Lush has done a wonderful job portraying this damaged and horribly misguided character, and has kept him remarkably likeable when you consider just how little humanity we’ve seen from him. This is not a character who has had a moment of Nirvana like Brad, or a moment of heroism like Nate, or even a moment of sheer terror like Captain America where you know that, while they’re making poor decisions, it is more out of shock and insecurity than out of any sort of mental will or desire. Rather, Tremblay just likes to kill: he wants to be shot, he wants to murder anything that moves, and he eventually is the only one who wants to relive their entire invasion (from the explosions to the murdered civilians) with a grin on his face reminiscing on what cool shit he did.
The argument, then, is that he is Generation Kill – that he represents a group of servicemen (like the reservists who are killing children, or like any other group making mistakes) who are going out of their way to find trouble or to seek out the most ill-advised missions. Simon and Burns have gone to painstaking lengths to tell us as little as possible about him as a person, the only glimpses we get being his initial insecurity over not having yet killed someone; once that takes place, his period of reflection over shooting innocent children is brief and removed from our perception, allowing him to revel in or even enjoy his reputation as Whopper Jr.
The problem, of course, is that this is but one problem – there are, if you will, too many bombs in the garden for Brad to possibly disable, and too many complications for them to be handled. Wright’s conversation with Godfather, where they discuss that Captain America is clearly unfit for duty, raises the point that responding to every such event would result in a whole lot of double standards, of tough decisions that can lack context or potentially endanger the entire mission. To diffuse one, you have to diffuse the rest – it’s not a perfect argument, but in these high pressure situations it is clear that Godfather is not a bad guy, nor is he completely incompetent. He’s a slave to ever higher orders, to even higher politics, and to the war to begin with – in other words, you can’t solve every problem.
But that’s a tough note to leave on: in fact, it’s impossible. One cannot leave Generation Kill like, eventually, I might leave The Wire: as long as wars are being fought, including the conflict in Iraq, can we really forget what we’ve seen (albeit mediated through the eyes of multiple different authors/writers)? While its ratings and buzz weren’t as high as they probably should have been, I do think that this should get people thinking, get people buying Wright’s book, and maybe (just maybe) get people making some changes.
As we all know, though, that takes a lot more than a little TV show.
- Enjoyed the football scene at episode’s end, mainly for (suprisingly muscular) Encino Man getting punched square in the jaw – while not a villain by any stretch, the outright incompetence of the man was enough to earn the cold shot.
- Interesting that they never seemed to call the journalist by name – whether it was Evan Wright looking for some distance from the material and allowing for certain liberties or what, it was still kind of interesting to see how simple his goodbye was with the men who kept him safe and also made his life hell at points.