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Generation Kill: "Cradle Of Civilization"


Generation Kill

"Cradle Of Civilization"

Season 1 , Episode 2

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“These men are living out here on rice and beans, sleeping out in the cold in these rags… these are some fuckin’ hard men. You ladies bitch if you get an MRE without a fuckin’ Pop Tart.”

There’s so much to talk about in any given episode of Generation Kill that it’s hard to know where to start, but the quote above struck me as one of the more keen observations of the series so far. The line is occasioned by a group of soldiers coming upon a small encampment, and one of them pissing in a basket of rice, under the logic that he’s “denying the enemy.” It’s a juvenile thing to do, and his superior officer’s response touches on a key theme in the series in general: That the war is being waged against some desperately poor people, and that it asserts American wealth and privilege over the fate of the less fortunate. The quote also suggests the ambiguity in some soldiers’ minds about who is and isn’t the enemy; the rice-pisser may see them all as a bunch of “Hajis,” but others are more capable of nuance.

This bracing piece of perspective also comments on another persistent issue facing the Marines in this series: They don’t have the tools they need to do the job. No matter how much righteous bitching they do about going into battle without enough batteries for their night optics or without the armor they need for their Humvees, those complaints, however legitimate, shrink in comparison to the nomads who live off rice and beans in the open air, unprotected from sandblasts and the bone-deep cold of desert night. These Marines represent a country that has, in the words of one, “created a system of so much excess that even poor motherfuckers are fat.” For a young man raised in such a place, the realities on the ground in Iraq must seem surreal.

After a lot of anxiousness from soldiers wanting to “get some,” the men finally got their wish this week, as they cross the Euphrates and enter into Mesopotamia, the “Cradle Of Civilization.” The circumstances are less than ideal: Rather than cross the river into Nasiriyah, the First Recon has to sit around taking fire from enemy mortars across the river. The ROE (Rules Of Engagement) permit them to shoot at anyone with a weapon, but it soon becomes clear that unarmed spotters are targeting them for mortar fire, and it takes a casualty or two before the ROE changes and they can shoot down any suspected spotters. Still, they can’t go across the bridge yet, so they spend most of the day on the defensive.

Once they reach Nasiriyah, their commanding officers direct them to stop right in the middle of a perfect spot for an ambush, with buildings hemmed in tight on both sides of the street. They’re fortunate not to get lit up—though the erratic Captain America turns an SUV into swiss cheese in a bid to “deny the enemy transportation”—but it’s a early indicator that they will eventually be placed into danger unnecessarily and have to scrap their way out. When Godfather decides to take the fight directly to the enemy in the next town, rather than to bypass it on the road to Baghdad, he again throws his Marines right into the middle of an ambush and they have to scrape and claw to punch through without taking significant casualties.

The big skirmish towards the end of the episode is thrilling to watch, especially when you recall how clumsy the street battles in The Wire were, when self-styled gangstas with guns angled sideways could never shoot straight. (The most violent such conflict in the series took only one life, and that was from a stray bullet hitting a child through his bedroom window.) It’s a reminder that these Marines are professionals, much like the Major Crimes unit in The Wire, and they’re capable of doing their jobs well despite dubious orders and a lack of resources. When it’s all over and they’ve come away unharmed, they break out into a well-earned celebration. The only sobering note comes when the gunner who took down a building shrugs off the back-slapping by saying, “It goes a little different and we could have all got killed today.”

As expected, “Cradle Of Civilization” is loaded with funny and sharply observed little anecdotes, since so much of a soldier’s time is taken up by those pregnant pauses where all he can do is shoot the shit with his buddies. The journalist Evan (Lee Turgeson) laughs out loud at his good fortune in riding along with Ray (James Ransone), whose diarrheatic monologues about topics ranging from patriotic songs (“Fuck man, eagles fly in Canada, too”) to motivations for being a Marine (“Brad probably saw the commercial with the knight who fucks up the dragon who turns into a Marine”) to Iraqi hotties (“I thought they all were camel-faced hags”) never cease to amuse or enlighten.

And through it all, they still have to worry about their “moostaches,” even after their triumph in the field. The official story for why they have to “scrape that hippie shit off their lips” has something to do with the possibility of mustachioed Iraqis infiltrating the Army, but upholding the grooming standard is a particularly sick joke after staring death in the face. My brother-in-law once told me that he believed the drinking age should be 18, because if you’re old enough to die for your country, you should at least be able have a beer. By that same token, if you’ve just been ambushed in an Iraqi city block, you should have the right to groom yourself like Rollie Fingers.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

• Some pretty scary stuff involving Captain America: Blasting away at the SUV with his AK-47 is one thing, but shooting an unarmed man in the back portends some disturbing developments. And since he’s in charge of these missions, nobody can put him in his place: “You didn’t see what the captain saw” is the most hopeful excuse they can manage.

• “I interpret what he said as ‘Facial hair is not going to be our focus in the next 24 hours.’”

• Some harrowing shots of the Marines passing charred-up bodies on the side of the road. One of them callously refers to a bombed-out van as a “Halloween funhouse,” but by the time they pass a little girl with legs blown off at the knees, they can only recoil in horror.

• Last line, about having to track down a superior lost in the dark: “Fucking officers will be the death of us yet.” I believe that’s what they refer to in the business as “foreshadowing.”