Generation Kill Gets the Little Things Right

A Marine who took part in the invasion depicted in the miniseries shares just how accurate the show is.

If you want to know what it felt like to be a Marine during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, watch Generation Kill. Ten years after the miniseries aired, it is still unlikely that any show in history has been fact-checked as ruthlessly by the people who were there.

Start with the source material. Much of Evan Wright’s book can be verified in a memoir released around the same time: Nathaniel Fick’s One Bullet Away, written by the lieutenant in charge of the very platoon Wright rode along with. For the TV series, showrunner David Simon hired Wright to co-author the scripts, plus several of the Marines from 1st Recon Battalion to serve as advisers on set. Rudy Reyes, a sergeant during the invasion, even portrayed himself in the series.

How detailed is the verisimilitude? More than most viewers are equipped to notice. At one point, Lieutenant Fick (played by Stark Sands) has map pens tucked upside-down in the loops of his modular protective vest. Not only is this detail specific to a particular rank — I was a Marine lieutenant in the same 2003 invasion depicted in the show, and I only saw junior officers wear map pens in their flak jackets — but the fact that the map pens are upside-down means that someone on set knew that felt tips dry out in the desert heat when the pens are stored upright.

It’s such a minuscule detail that, had it been absent, I wouldn’t have noticed or cared. But it was there, and the message from Simon and Burns is clear: Details matter. In an era when popular portrayals of war like The Hurt Locker have gotten big things wrong, Generation Kill took care to get the smallest things right.

The actors playing the Marines of 1st Recon Battalion don’t just look like Marines, though. They sound like them. They walk and swear and shoot and joke like them. Although the heart of the series is the interplay between the Ripped Fuel-guzzling motormouth Corporal Josh Ray Person (James Ransone) and the cool-headed Sergeant Brad “Iceman” Colbert (Alexander Skarsgård), almost every character is portrayed with depth — or at least more depth than the role would get in other war stories.

The Marines of Generation Kill are by turns loving and stern, immature and sublimely professional, racist and open-minded, homophobic and homoerotic, gung ho and fatalistic, oblivious and self-aware of their place in the American machine of war. It does not always reflect well on the Marine Corps — and, notably, it doesn’t tell any story but the Marine Corps’, mostly showing Iraqis as victims of the violence of war — but anything else would be dishonest. It is nothing more or less than war as Wright and the Marines experienced it.

Because most of the Marines are elite warriors prone to decisive action and precision marksmanship under fire, the incompetents in the story stand out. Many depictions of the Marine Corps in popular culture show a unit struggling to cope with a single idiot — Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket, Lieutenant Ring in Heartbreak Ridge — but the truth is that every Marine unit is littered with idiots of varying ranks, and the only kind of idiot in the Marine Corps is a dangerous idiot.

That danger is evident when Lance Corporal Trombley shoots two innocent children, leaving Fick and the unit’s medical corpsman to deal with the fallout. And it’s especially noticeable in the incompetence of “Captain America,” a dimwit so prone to hysterics that his placement in a recon battalion seems impossible (I’d dismiss it as caricature had I not served with a lieutenant whose imperilment of his fellow Marines was eerily similar). It manifests in small ways, too, as when the sergeant major yells at Marines for not maintaining regulation mustaches during combat operations. Even the raspy-voiced battalion commander, Lt. Col. Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando, rightfully portrayed as a bold leader, takes an unnecessary risk with the safety of his Marines — assaulting an airfield with thin-skinned Humvees — because his ambition trumps his caution.

That’s what Generation Kill gets right, more than anything: Combat is not merely a deadly fight with the enemy. It is a struggle to limit the danger posed by bureaucracy and incompetence — from the trigger-happy dropout to the staff officer issuing treacherous orders from a safe remove so that he can impress the general with a bold plan.

War is enervating, dull, and dangerous, and the people who do the killing and dying in close quarters — the Marines of 1st Recon, and others like them — deserve more care and competence from their leaders, their government, and the American people. The Marines of Generation Kill never get it, but part of being a Marine is knowing you never will.