“Mount up. We’re Oscar Mike. We’re Oscar Mike!”
So goes the last line of tonight’s devastating episode, “A Burning Dog,” and it says a lot, I think. The bookends tell the story: As the hour opens, Colbert, Espera, and the gang are spying on a very small residential area from which a mortar team might have fired. They don’t observe anyone other than women and children—the mortar teams tend not to stay in one place—but their recon work goes for naught as the area gets obliterated from above, like some kind of horrible magic trick. Then later, at the end of the hour, one of Colbert’s men—the Heavy Gun operator, who was working on no sleep—opens fire too soon on a roadblock, and winds up killing a civilian driver. He and Colbert share a silent exchange, and Colbert can see that he’s shattered by what he’s done, as any conscientious person would be. Then we get Colbert’s line, and a cut to black.
What else needs to be said? We’re five weeks into Generation Kill now, and it’s now accepted that many innocent civilians have lost their lives unnecessarily. The deaths happen for various reasons: Sometimes they’re collateral damage from a legitimate attack, sometimes they’re from mistakes made by command, and sometimes they occur due to individual error, like the roadblock screw-up at the end. Whatever the case, these Marines have no choice: Mount up. Oscar Mike. They have to continue heading upriver, and continue to try to do their jobs. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have misgivings about it—quite the contrary, it’s patently obvious that the things they’ve done and/or witnessed will haunt them forever—but they have to soldier on. What Colbert does for his men in the beginning and the end of this episode is to keep the gravity of the situation from weighing too heavily on them. And I found that pretty moving by the end.
One of the things I’m loving about Generation Kill is how matter-of-fact the show is about everything. It’s the David Simon way: Just show things as they are, and don’t get fancy about it. (Have you ever seen, say, a slow-motion shot in a Simon production?) Where most war movies or TV dramas about soldiers will emphasize their nobility or, on the other end, the vivid horrors of what they’re seeing or doing, Simon and his crew are trying to be as truthful as they can about it. We see men who are psychos (Trombley), incompetents (Encino Man), and overzealous boobs (Captain America), others who are highly skilled and intelligent leaders of men, and all manner of fighters in between. There’s nothing politically correct about how they talk—the language is slightly saltier than you might see on Band Of Brothers, for example—and they’re forced into critical decisions that have to be made quickly, and sometimes are misjudged. Yet I think Generation Kill is ultimately a powerful tribute to the bravery and sacrifice of American soldiers, more so than an overtly patriotic war movie that glosses over the rough stuff.
That point hit home during perhaps the nastiest skirmish we’ve witnessed yet on the show, a nighttime ambush near the only bridge into a hostile city. For the umpteenth time, the recon unit is hurled needlessly into a dangerous situation that could have been avoided. In the name of aggression, they’ve largely abandoned the type of missions for which they’ve been trained—or, in the case of the obliterated houses at the beginning, had their observations ignored—and been thrown into combat in areas that would have traditionally been cleared by “air and ass.” Incredibly, they’ve managed to get themselves out of some nasty scrapes with few casualties, but any one of the ambushes could have gone “Black Hawk Down” on them and that crazy airport mission against a potential 4,000 Republican Guard members might have wiped them out totally.
Tonight’s operation was pretty bracing: Hard-charging through the night with poor Night Vision Goggles, and tasked with crossing a bridge that’s obstructed (something an, um, recon mission might have cleared up) and that may also be lined with mines that would rip apart their unarmored Humvees. As Ray jokes later, when the Rolling Stone reporter asks him about why they just didn’t go around it: “You’re not thinking military. Bypassing the ambush is just what the ambushers expect us to do.” Fortunately, they pick apart the ambush with minimal damage done—even after getting jammed up at and on the bridge—but that’s partially because the people they’re fighting are foreign “irregulars” with no military training.
And here we get maybe the first overtly political talk we’ve seen on the show. When one of the enemy dead is discovered to have Syrian dollars and a passport—with “jihad” listed as the purpose of his visit!—the soldiers are alerted to the reality that they’re not just fighting Saddam’s men, but a wide-open front on the war on terror. Encino Man, dipshit that he is, declares, “This is why we’re here,” echoing President Bush’s language about “fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them [in the U.S.].” Fick takes another view: “Isn’t this the exact opposite of what we wanted to have happen here?” A guy who was a Syrian student just a few days ago is now an American-hunting jihadist in Iraq. Considering the sources, I think it’s pretty obvious where Simon and company stand on the issue.
• Evan Wright, author of the book Generation Kill, is the credited writer of tonight’s episode, which may or may not explain the increased frequency of his character’s appearances. And it leads to some great stuff, too, including him being forced to stay in the Humvee for the mission as a good luck charm and the hilarious moment when he offers Colbert a theory on where the mortar team might be hiding. “Much as I appreciate Rolling Stone’s tactical input…”
• Captain America was especially alarming this evening. He seems to be acting out the cliché-riddled Vietnam War movie in his head: Getting unreasonably pissed at a civilian who’s offering valuable information (and then later getting credit for drawing it out!) and going apeshit during the ambush (“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I’ve got some good men dying in there!”).
• A great episode for Espera, who was cynical enough about the white man’s war going into it, but has now had his fill of women and children dying and refuses to see past it.
• “Here we are: Perfectly tuned Ferraris in a demolition derby.”
• Fascinating stuff involving Fick, who has decided to tow the company line after the whole “danger close” incident. He will no longer abide any dissention in the ranks—even if it involves a boob like Captain America—and he trumpets the “aggressive” tactics coming from command, no matter what private reservations he might have about them. He seems to have learned his lesson in the end (“Don’t pet a burning dog”), so it will be interesting to see how Fick develops in the final two episodes.
• Encino Man. How did that guy get put in charge of anything?