Writer/Consultant: Evan Wright
We started this episode with a live-fire training exercise in part because Ed Burns believed it was important to show the audience up front the amount of fire power that even a small unit of Marines packed. There is one cheat in this scene: the Marines of bravo two never had the opportunity to practice firing their MK-19 automatic grenade launchers from moving Humvees prior to entering combat. The Marines' first live-fire shooting of heavy weapons from moving Humvees didn't actually occur until all of us were ambushed the first time in Iraq. In 2003 Recon Marines didn't traditionally deploy with humvees and heavy weapons. They were trained to swim, parachute or boat into combat zones, then sneak around on foot and avoid direct contact with enemy forces. Driving in humvees equipped with heavy weapons wasn't part of their doctrinal training. The vehicles, heavy weapons and gun mounts they would use in Iraq didn't arrive until days prior to the invasion, so there was no time for a complete training cycle. Cpl. Person, the driver of team one's humvee which I would ride in, didn't even have a humvee operator's license.
Espera's speech on the white man's destiny is a combination of things he said to me in Iraq and later when we spent time together in Los Angeles. He read the script and approved, though in real life he caught a lot of flak inside the Marine Corps by those who misunderstood his sardonic wit when I quoted him in my book. Espera's observations on war and culture inform the entire mini-series.
There were several shamal dust storms that occurred at Camp Mathilda. The one thing you can't capture on the film is the pervasiveness of the dust in the desert even when there is no storm. On many days in Kuwait and Iraq, dust, fine as talcum powder, hangs in the air like a fog. The Marines had already spent several weeks living Camp Mathilda prior to my arrival. Because of the dust, and the fact that they slept on the plywood flooring of windblown tents, they looked like a fairly ill group even before the invasion. Everyone was coughing. Their noses were running. Eyes were red-rimmed. Shamal storms simply added to the aggravation by whipping up tons of additional sand and knocking down tents.
Shortly after my arrival I was treated to a session of racially-charged banter among Marines. Sharper observers will note in this episode that after putting each other down in the harshest of terms, the cpls. Chaffin and Garza walk off together laughing. They are portrayed as the closest of friends, as indeed they were. In Marine culture actions count more than words. No one in this unit had any doubt that the others would be there for them in time of need. But the language of Marines remains disconcerting to outsiders. The Navy Chaplain assigned to this unit would later confess to me that recon Marines were among the most foul-mouthed troopers he'd ever encountered during his years of ministering to the military. When I worked with David Simon on this scene I was gratified that he didn't want to pull any punches. His intent with the scripted drama was the same as mine in the original reporting: to portray the Marines as they were, not as people back home might think they ought to be.
On the trip to the P/X, the set designers built a bright Subway sandwich shop which Colbert, Person and my character walk past. A viewer wondered if this Subway logo was done as product placement. This scene, like many others in the mini series, was dressed and shot using reference photos provided by our key military adviser, former Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Kocher (CHK), and myself. The P/X did in fact feature a Subway sandwich shop built out of shipping container and brightly painted with the logo.
Ed Burns and I were initially opposed to putting my character into the scripts as the reporter. David Simon believed it was important. He basically said, "We're doing your book. You were there in that seat in the Humvee. What are we going to do, film Colbert's Humvee with an empty seat, or put a fake Marine there?" Typically, in my journalism I haven't included a lot of first-person reporting. I try to keep the focus on my subjects. In the book I did occasionally use the first person to remind readers that much of the reporting in it was based on my direct experiences. I also used the first person to describe particular internal experiences, such as how it feels to have a mortar explode nearby. But outside of limited asides in the first person, most of the book focuses on the words and actions of my subjects. I was worried that having an actor portraying the reporter in the humvee would tilt the emphasis of the show onto him, not the Marines.
I was very gratified the day director Susanna White filmed Lee Tergesen recreating the scene of my blundering with a gas mask and a chemical protective MOPP suit, issued to me by the Marine Corps which was a couple sizes too small. Tergesen did a great comic job in that scene. His portrayal of that moment was accurate, and it's appropriate that the reporter serve as comic relief. Television has turned reporters into self-important, pompous characters--celebrities who become more important than the subjects they cover. I felt Tergesen captured what I typically see in myself and other print reporters. We try to be as close as possible to our subjects as possible, but stay out their way. Unlike TV reporters, print guys don't get points for style. Another advantage we have is we don't have to carry little make-up kits into combat zones, as TV reporters do.
In writing the book I provided context for the actions of the Marines, explaining in detail and with maps what their mission was supposed to be and how this played out. In a sense, the context I provided in my book was artificial. When I was in the humvee with Colbert and the team our situational awareness was murky at best. It was only after we stopped, and I would interview other teams, other units and officers that the big picture would emerge. In the book I used this follow-on reporting to contextualize the narrative of the Marines. Readers of the book probably have a better sense of the big picture as they are following the action than viewers of the show. Viewers aren't given maps (other than those depicted in briefings), or narrative asides where we pull back from the action and explain what's going on. In this sense the filmed adaptation is truer to the reality of Marines during the invasion than the book was. The missions they prepared for changed. New orders came with no notice. Often Colbert and the other Marines didn't know why they were being sent down a particular road at a particular time until long after they had completed the job. David Simon and Ed Burns wanted to throw viewers into the action as the Marines were, with extremely limited situational awareness. This approach to story-telling demands a little more from viewers. But it also gives viewers a better opportunity to understand the experiences of combatants without the downside of actually being shot at.
Tell us what you think about HBO GO. Sign up now to participate in the HBO GO Advisory Panel to share your opinions and for a chance to be entered into HBO sweepstakes and contests.