“There’s one less bomb in the garden now, isn’t there?” —Colbert
The irony and tragedy of the last episode of Generation Kill is embedded in the title, which references Colbert’s line about blasting an unexploded bomb in an area where children play. These Marines were part of a military operation that breathlessly swept through Iraq, brought down Saddam’s army, and captured Baghdad in a stunning three-week campaign. And yet, when our heroes in 1st Recon arrive in the city, they’re quickly forced to search for the tiniest shred of redemption. They can’t help the Iraqis with the endless list of problems caused by the war, so the best they can do is to make a difference in small—and in the grand scheme of things, almost poignantly superficial—ways. Whether it’s Doc applying gauze to a boy with a wounded leg or Colbert clearing the bomb (though not a second bomb), we see men extracting a measure of dignity and salvation from a situation that’s utterly fucked.
One of the amazing things about Generation Kill is the timeframe: Six of the seven episodes take place during that three weeks when the American military blew through Iraq and walloped the Republican Guard. So it’s really about a successful mission in a lot of ways; despite the fact that the 1st Recon was used in the wrong capacity (“Ferraris in a demolition derby,” to paraphrase Colbert), nobody we got to know in the show lost their lives. They were able to get out of all sorts of horrible scrapes, and be part of the “Mission Accomplished” crew that liberated Iraq. On the surface, there’s really nothing wrong with that scenario: If you told the men in advance that (a) they were going to live and (b) they were going to defeat Saddam in 21 days, I’m guessing they would have considered that an unqualified success.
And yet the seeds of future failure are planted throughout the six episodes leading into tonight’s finale. The speed with which they were moving across the country exacted a cost in stability and “hearts and minds” that’s still being paid to this day. When Fick gets into a Baghdad neighborhood and fields complaints from the locals, it’s a laundry list of problems the battalion can’t begin to solve: No fresh water, no electricity, no jobs, no police to stop the roving bandits and vigilantes from looting businesses, ransacking homes, and setting scores out on the streets. A lot of it has to do with inept post-war planning, but we witness plenty of incidents throughout the series that suggest that the war was carried out recklessly, too. When put in a situation where they could help people by moving more carefully through the country—like aiding wounded children or providing safe haven for refugees—their orders were to move ahead, aggressively, to the next mission. And once they get into Baghdad, it’s the same situation: Always Oscar Mike, new location every day.
So much to talk about here that I don’t know where to begin. How about a couple of awesome scenes involving command, which really got me to reverse (or at least complicate) my thinking of some of the men in charge? The smallest one had Major Sixta—he of the “moostache” patrol—asking if morale was flagging; if so, he said, he’d have to start getting on the men about the grooming standard. In one line, we get a complete reversal of what we thought Sixta was about: The whole “grooming standard” thing seemed (and indeed, deliberately was) a trivial matter in a mission of great import, but he understood that the men bonded over their hatred of it. That’s a nice little motivational trick, and one I didn’t see coming.
The big scene was the exit interview between the reporter and Godfather, which offered some real insight into the sorts of choices that command has to make. Throughout the series, we’ve witnessed a major contrast in leadership qualities between Fick and Captain America: Fick is upstanding, highly competent, and exercises good, sometimes defiant, judgment under pressure. Captain America, on the other hand, is total loon—a loose cannon, a brute, and a terrible decision-maker, especially under pressure. Fick gets in hot water over defying orders that he felt jeopardized lives needlessly; Captain America slips the noose on myriad fuck-ups, including fresh crimes like abusing a prisoner and acquiescing to a poorly conceived mission to set up chem lights in a minefield at night. Godfather is better attuned to what’s going on than we might give him credit for being. He acknowledges that Captain America is walking a razor-thin line, and even goes so far as to say that his actions are of the sort that led to the My Lai Massacre. But from his perspective, there are more important principles to observe, like the need to trust his subordinates in command unless a man’s misdeeds can be proven to him without doubt. I think it’s a surprise to the reporter to hear Godfather say those things, but it makes sense. Everyone has their reasons.
To me, the other key line from the episode—besides the one quoted at the beginning of this recap—is another one from Colbert: “People who can’t kill will always be subject to those who can.” It’s a cynical thought, but one surely rooted in the experience of being a Marine in wartime, where might makes right, and you have to contend with the legions of innocent civilians whose lives are upended beyond their control. How fitting, then, that the last shot of the miniseries settle on Trombley, who most definitely is a person who can kill without pause and without remorse. It’s his world. We’re just living in it.
• Looking upon Baghdad for the first time and seeing the city sprawl, one soldier remarks: “If we’re not careful, we can get lost in this here.” That was the one line tonight that felt a little too on-the-nose for me, and I’m glad the show didn’t indulge in that brand of prescience too often.
• The soldiers finally get their ticker-tape parade… in a “Haji” cigarettes factory.
• Great line when the reporter talks to a soldier about witnessing an Iraqi get murdered in front of him: “Too bad,” says the soldier, “He’d have probably liked democracy.”
• How many In-Laws fans were whooping it up over the reporter’s “Serpentine!” zig-zag? Gotta love a guy who gets his military training from a zany Peter Falk-Alan Arkin vehicle.
• Though we got some powerful scenes of Colbert, Fick, and some of the more conscientious men trying to mend fences where they could, it was good to also see that other Marines just want to fuck shit up, e.g. the ransacking of an abandoned bureaucrat’s office.
• Ray: “That was cool. Who do we invade now?”
• What did everyone else think?