Generation Kill

Hey all. Today I’m stepping outside the box to cover a review in honor of a friend of mine. Master Seaman Chris Jenkins, who recently moved across the country and won’t be in our neck of the woods for the next three years. Ah, that’s going to be rough. Luckily, there’s still this thing known as the internet and the communications it allows for.

And like I earlier, I still owe him this review and I hope it finds him in good spirits when he gets to the other side of the country. And since I loved this series myself, I’m willing to step outside the confines of sci-fi to honor it. It was downright awesome, and historically relevant. So here goes…

Background:
For those who don’t know, Generation Kill was an HBO miniseries adapted from the book of the same name. Said book was the result of reporter Evan Wright’s own experiences as an embedded reporter with the 1st Marine Reconnaissance Battalion during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. In the course of his time with them, he had a first hand view of the invasion and all the problems that resulted.

And therein lies the real value of this miniseries. Whereas many people who witnessed the invasion, particularly in the US, seemed to think that the initial phase of the war was a success, that problems didn’t arise until after the occupation began, this series and the book that inspired it shows that the problems that would come to consume Iraq were there from day one. These included lawlessness, incompetence on behalf of the civilian planners, civilian deaths, insurgency, and the glaring gap between the reality of the situation on the ground and how it was being portrayed by politicians and media.

Plot Synopsis:
The story, which begins with the invasion and culminates in the arrival and settlement of 1st Recon around Baghdad, is told through seven episodes. Each one catalogs a different phase in the war effort, showing events from multiple points of view of those who fought with Bravo Company, the Company which led the way during the invasion.

Episode 1: “Get Some”
The episode opens with the 1st Recon Battalion, Bravo Company, conducting training drills inside Kuwait outside of Camp Mathilda. The embedded reporter from Rolling Stone magazine, Evan Wright (Lee Tergesen), arrives at camp and is given to 2nd Platoon where he receives a frosty welcome. Considering him a member of the “left-wing liberal media” they don’t have much love for him, until they learn he used to write for Hustler magazine!

He quickly makes the acquaintance of the men of Bravo company whom he will be riding with in the lead Humvee. This includes Sgt. Brad “Iceman” Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard, Erik on True Blood), Cpl. Josh Ray Person (James Ransone), and relative FNG Lance Cpl. Harold James Trombley (Billy Lush). Throughout the first episode, we also get to meet many other “characters” of interest.

These includes Lt. Col. Stephen Ferrando (Chance Kelly), who was given the nickname ‘Godfather’ because throat surgery has left him with a harsh, whispery voice. Then there’s Lt. Nathaniel Fick (Stark Sands), the levelheaded commander of 2nd Platoon; Cpt. Craig ‘Encino Man’ Schwetje (Brian Patrick Wade), the well-meaning but incompetent commander of Bravo Company; Dave ‘Captain America’ McGraw (Eric Nenninger), the edgy and unstable commander of 3rd platoon; and Sgt. Rodolfo ‘Rudy’ Reyes, aka. “Fruity-Rudy” (played by himself), the metrosexual Marine who acts as the glue of Bravo Company.

Significance: This episode familiarizes the viewer with several realities that Marines in the 1st Recon had to deal with. The first and most obvious is shortages, which the Marines are constantly told to make do with. The second is the fact that much of Bravo Company’s own officers are inept, enforcing pointless rules instead of focusing on troop morale or making sure they have the right kinds of equipment.

Episode 2: “The Cradle of Civilization”
The invasion is now underway and 1st Recon is sent to An Nasiriyah where the invasion has stalled. Bravo Company begins to lead the way through the town and is given orders to fire on anyone they deem a threat. They encounter minimal gunfire until Cpt. McGraw, using a captured AK, opens fire on civilian cars for no apparent reason. They continue to press forward north into Mesopotamia, “The Cradle of Civilization”.

After taking a wrong turn, Bravo company rushes onward to reach to its next objective outside the town of Al Gharraf by nightfall. In the dark, Bravo company comes under fire by a group of armed Iraqis and takes them down without difficulty. They score their first kills and survive their baptism by fire, and Bravo company celebrates before moving on.

Significance: This episode is the first time that 1st Recon experiences combat and the first time that Cpt. McGraw commits a stupid act in the line of duty. His confiscating of an AK and firing randomly is a constant source of irritation as time goes on, but nothing is ever done about it. In addition, this episode, specifically the layout of the town, the bridge and the operation into the town, was the inspiration for COD: Modern Warfare 2, much like how scenes from Enemy at the Gates inspired Call of Duty 1 and 2 and COD: World at War.

Episode 3: “Screwby”
After surviving their first engagement, Bravo presses forward. When they reach a roadside hamlet, the company look on in disbelief as a regimental combat team arrives and obliterates the hamlet and its inhabitants, none of whom appeared to be armed. Shortly thereafter, Bravo heads north to the town of Ar Rifa, where Captain Schwetje orders a “danger close” artillery barrage on the settlement. Lt. Fick intervenes to try to prevent the unwarranted barrage, but to no avail. Once again, civilians are killed due to incompetence of senior officers.

Eager once more to press ahead, “Godfather” orders 1st Recon to push ahead another 40 km and capture an airstrip being controlled by Iraqi Republican Guard unit that is apparently equipped with tanks. Once again, Cpt. MgCraw begins to undermine morale by making all kinds of panicky statements, namely that they are going to die if they go up against the tanks. Also, in order to reach the airfield, they are forced to leave behind their supply trucks behind.

Once again, Bravo Company is given permission to open fire on anything that moves. In the lead Humvee, Cpl. Tromblay opens fire on people running along the roadside and severely injures a small boy. The Company secures the airfield, which appears to be abandoned, and then insists that command medevac the boy to a nearby base. Command is hesitant, but eventually agrees, and both Sgt. Colbert and Cpl. Tromblay are to told to expect consequences for the incident.

Significance: In this episode, we get a solid glimpse of how civilian deaths in Iraq are being swept under the rug and written off as justifiable. The soldiers are beginning to feel the weight of this and cracks begin to show in their morale and resolve. After both engagements, in the hamlet and Ar Rifa, they tell each other to put it out of their minds and move on, knowing that there isn’t much they can do about it.

Episode 4: “Combat Jack”
1st Recon reaches the airfield and encounters minimal resistance, the Republican Guard unit having already evacuated and left their tanks behind. This puts 1st Recon ahead of the rest of the American invasion, which is seen as something favorable to command. However, they soon learn that by leaving their supply trucks behind, that Iraqis have captured and looted them. Amongst the supplies was most of Bravo Company’s rations and an American flag, which means they are now down to one meal a day.

Alpha Company is then tasked with a different mission: to recover the body of a captured Marine who was murdered in Ah Shatra. The mission takes a turn when when CIA agents show up and declare that a special army of Iraqi Freedom Fighters will take the town for the sake of their propaganda campaign. However, the army deserts the next day after an artillery barrage fails to clear the town of the enemy. Meanwhile, Bravo company continues clearing hamlets along the northern route and sets up a roadblock outside of Al Hayy. The rules of engagement here are unclear, and Bravo ends up destroying a large truck and killing all passengers, uncertain if it even posed a threat.

Significance: Three major developments happen in this episode, all of which demonstrate a considerable amount about the unfolding war. First, it becomes clear to the Marines that their officers are making all the wrong calls, but as long as they continue to be successful, command will keep making them. The operation outside of Al Hayy shows just how important propaganda efforts are to the war effort, namely maintaining the illusion that the Iraqis welcome the invasion as liberation. And last, we get a first glimpse of how the Marines will have problems acting as police in the streets, mainly because they are not trained for the role.

Episode 5: “A Burning Dog”
1st Recon finally gets some solid intel from the locals, which says that there is an ambush waiting for them up ahead. The ambush is attacked by some LAV’s, and Bravo is ordered to cross the bridge at night. However, they hit a snag along the way and the convoy gets stuck, just as a group of fresh ambushees show up to attack them. Schwetje once again shows his incompetence by being unable to resolve the situation, and Cpt. McGraw once again panics and begins screaming over the open radio. Things are only resolved when Rudy intervenes and inspires Cpt Schwetje to think outside the box.

By morning, Bravo company learns that they are not soldiers, but militiamen, many of whom came from Syria and farther abroad. On passports recovered from the bodies, it says that their reason for coming to Iraq was “Jihad”. Bravo continues north to Al Muwafaqiyah, where they are tasked with setting up another roadblock and with destroying the Republican Guard outpost, which, unfortunately, is in the town’s only school. Despite Colbert’s orders to hold their fire unless its absolutely necessary, Bravo has another incident at the road block and a small child is killed.

Significance: This episode is especially significant because it shows how the roots of the insurgency began long before the war ended. Whereas Captain Schwetje thinks this is proof of what Bush said about their being terrorists in Iraq, the others see from their passports that the “Jihadis” didn’t enter Iraq until the day after the US declared war. Already, the invasion is beginning to have consequences that no one seemed to plan for, particularly in how it is involving people from outside Iraq. What’s more, the mounting civilian deaths is forcing the Marines to question the war and what their role in it really is.

Episode 6: “Stay Frosty”
Outside of Al Kut, Cpt. McGraw nearly kills a prisoner with his bayonet after his Company defeats a small group of armed Iraqis. His men are becoming more disillusioned in his command, and Sgt. Eric Kocher (Owain Yeoman) of 3rd platoon learns that he is being held accountable for the incident. Afterward, McGraw’s men refuse to allow him to anywhere near prisoners, for fear that he will attempt to stab them again. In addition, 1st Recon learns that Godfather’s counterpart in the Regimental Combat Team is being relieved of command despite his success. Apparently, command is reigning people in due to problems with deaths and insubordination.

Problems also begin to arise between Captain Schwetje and Lt. Fick because of their earlier disagreements after he hearsof this. Schwetje’s NCO, Gunnery Sgt. Ray Griego (David Barrera), suggest to him that command is alluding to Fick’s own insubordination when they spoke of insubordination, and begins spreading rumors about Fick behind his back. While Fick is told not to question Schwetje orders again, Fick demands that Schwetje also reign in Greigo for his unprofessional and insubordinate behavior towards himself.

Shortly thereafter, 1st Recon is tasked with escorting Iraqi civilians fleeing from Baghdad down the highway, a mission which makes them feel humane amidst all the slaughter. Colbert is confronted by an Iraqi woman who speaks perfect English and challenges him on the nature of the war, which he appears to take to heart. Unfortunately, while attempting to peacefully force cars coming the opposite direction turn back, another Iraqi is killed, this time an old man.

Significance: The immediate value in this episode is in how it shows how the wrong people are being blamed for failures while those who continue to screw up remain in positions of authority. We also get to see how the war is being perceived by the Iraqis, which is put into words by the female student who challenges Colbert on the road from Baghdad. And last, the incident involving the old man shows once again how civilians are being killed because combat soldiers are being assigned police duties, again as the result of bad planning. And last, but not least, it is indicated that the troops are now within reach of Baghdad, which they hope will end the war and all the stupidity and craziness they have been forced to endure.

Episode 7: “Bomb in the Garden”
1st Recon finally reaches Baghdad and is treated to some rest and reprieve in an abandoned cigarette factory. However, the rest doesn’t last long as they are called upon to mount patrols into the city and deal with shortages, looting and sporadic sniper fire.

Having only one translator, they are limited in what they can do and realize the problems the residents are face are entirely beyond their abilities. This is complicated further by constantly changing orders, a lack of necessary supplies, unruly locals and cultural misunderstandings. The situation only gets worse and the city continues to descend into anarchy.

1st Recon is soon relocated to a soccer stadium away from the action. At their new digs, the tensions that have been simmering for weeks finally boil over during a friendly football game. Wright conducts his last interview with Godfather where he learns that McGraw is not going to be punished for two near-stabbings.

He then says goodbye to the men of 2nd Platoon being carried off by helicopter, an event which seems tearful after all they’ve seen together. One of the Marines begins to show the movie he’s put together from the footage he’s shot over the course of the war. While the men initially enjoy watching it, they slowly begin to lose interest and drift away, thanks to all the bad memories it evokes.

Significance: This episode is the most significant of all because of how it showcases the reality of life in Baghdad during and immediately after the war. Contrary to public perceptions, the chaos and violence were almost immediate, and it was abundantly clear that the military hierarchy had no idea what to do about it. this, above all else in the show, highlights the lack of planning on behalf of the Bush administration and the Pentagon before the war began. Faced with victory, the soldiers were completely unprepared for the situation they faced as soon as the shooting was over.

Of equal significance are the scenes at the soccer stadium, where everyone seems burnt out and angry despite the fact that the war is now over. No one is in the mood to celebrate; in fact, everyone seems itching for a fight for someone specific. During the pick-up game, Schwetje is punched in the face by one of his men, and Cpl. Person attacks Rudy for no apparent reason. During his final interview with Lt. Col. “Godfather” Ferrando, Wright learns that there will be no consequences for any of the officers who screwed up along the way, highlighting the lack of accountability that runs like a vein through the show.

And finally, the scene where the Marines watch the video – this is the only scene in the miniseries that is accompanied by background music. Not a word is said, and yet the mood and the point are conveyed so clearly. The war is done, they have won, and yet everyone feels terribly bitter and angry. All that we need to know about the Iraq War is said in this one scene, with the men who fought in it preferring not to see the replay because it reminds them of everything they want to forget.

Summary:
As if it wasn’t clear already, I LOVED THIS MINISERIES! The tone, the pacing, the subtle way things are conveyed, the gritty and realistic nature of it all. It captured the essence of war, and was so much better because you watch it knowing that it all happened. Some might say that since it is being told from one man’s point of view, it would reflect his own particular biases and perspective. However, the series is shot from multiple points of view and reflects the very in-depth interview process which Wright conducted before releasing the book.

This comes through immediately in the show, where Wright appears to be little more than a background figure until the very last few minutes of the last episodes. And even then, the focus shifts back to the troops, where it always was during the course of the series. This diversity of perspectives gives the show a very broad and varied feel and let’s the viewer become acquainted with all that is going on, which is essential given the nature of the show.

Even people who don’t like war movies will find something to enjoy here. It is historic, it is personal, it is human and it is real. The characters are very rich, and the series has absolutely no shortage of keen dialogue. Cpl. Josh Ray Person has to be the funniest man in the series, and the antics of the men in the first Humvee, where Wright was embedded, were priceless. Several discussions which still stick out in my mind include when the grunts learn that Wright once worked for Hustler, the many times “Iceman” Colbert calls Person a “Whiskey Tango” (phonetic alphabet for White Trash), and the discussion concerning the nature of “November Juliet” (you’ll have to watch the series to learn the meaning of that one!)

Above all, what makes this story so effective is that it is a first-hand account of the events that took place in 2003, told by a member of the same media that helped to sell the war to the American public. Defying the conventional view that the war was an act of liberation that was embraced by the Iraqis, and only went bad long after major combat operations ended, the series shows that this was an operation doomed from the get-go. All the problems that would later come to haunt the “rebuilding phase” – basic shortages, cultural misunderstandings, insurgents, civilian deaths, failure to plan, shifting orders, and negligence in dealing with rioters and insurgents – were all there from day one.

For many years after the invasion, the American people were left in constant state of confusion and controversy as an intransigent administration and hand-picked military spokespeople tried to spin the situation, refused to accept responsibility for the failures, and insisted the situation was salvageable. It was only with time that they came to realize that the truth was always there, happening on the front lines, and that it was kept from them for political reasons. The situation had not changed, only their perception of it.

Well, that’s all I got to say about Generation Kill. I hope you enjoyed reading this review as much as I enjoyed watching the miniseries. And if you’re reading this Chris, I hope you especially enjoyed reading it. It got a little wordy there, I know. I’m known for that but this time, I really tried to keep it to 50, 000 words or less 😉

What does Osama’s death mean (part II)?

What is to be done? Well for starters, the US and its coalition allies should withdraw from Afghanistan. If history has taught us anything, its that occupations are a losing battle, especially in places like Afghanistan. That country has made a name for itself grinding up invaders and spitting them back out. It’s mountainous terrain, hardened people and impenetrable network of tribal loyalties have always proven to be the undoing of invaders, no matter who they were or what kind of technological superiority they possessed. But above and beyond all that, it is startling how much Afghanistan is beginning to look like Iraq, which in turn showed the same signs of failure early on that haunt all occupations and foretell their failure. To break it down succinctly, there are five basic indicators that indicate that an occupation has failed.

1. Insurgency: If the population turns against you and begins mounting an armed resistance, you know you’ve lost. Little to nothing can be done at this point because tougher measures will only aid in their recruitment, they have the home field advantage, and can recruit endlessly from their own population. The occupier, no matter how benign their original intentions, can’t allow violence to go unchecked, and so they inevitably play into the hands of their enemy. Already Afghanistan has mounted its own insurgency in the form of a resurgent Taliban that is actively recruiting from the country’s Pashtun majority. Recruits spill over the border on a regular basis from Pakistan, where millions of Pashtuns also live, and there is little the US and Coalition can do about it because the Khyber Pass (the mountainous region that spans the border) is too vast and rugged to keep sealed.

Much like in Iraq, what we’re seeing is a major resistance that is actively recruiting from a major ethnic group that is fighting to regain the power it once enjoyed. In some ways, it worse than with the Sunnis of Iraq, because the Pashtuns constitute the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan with 40 percent of the population, the remaining 60 being made up of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Arabs, and many other groups. In short, they constitute a larger chunk of the population, and their counterparts are disparate and divided.

2. Weak/Crooked Allies: Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun who served in the post-Soviet Afghani government, has a long history of allying himself with US interests. During the Russian occupation, he was a secret contact for the CIA and helped run guns and money to the mujahedin from neighboring Pakistan. During the Taliban’s rise to power, he became a vocal opponent, and after 9/11 he became a major ally of the US . It is also rumored that he was a consultant for Unocal, a major oil firm with strong ties to the Bush family. It’s little wonder then why he was installed as president once Coalition forces had ousted the Taliban. Unfortunately, since the invasion, his government has been notorious for its corruption and impotence. In the former category, his election win in 2009 was tainted by scandal and blatant instances of fraud. His family have also thrived under his rule and committed numerous criminal acts, the most notorious of which were by his half-brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, a prominent drug trafficker and CIA contractor.

In the latter category, Karzai’s political impotence is legendary. In fact, he is often playfully referred to as the “mayor of Kabul” because his power does not extend beyond the capitol. Warlords who owe no allegiance to him or coalition authorities, who were bought off in order to fight the Taliban, are largely responsible for controlling the other regions of the country. Though corrupt and weak, Karzai’s remains an important political ally to the US because of his background and ethnic-ties. He is able to put a Pashtun face on a government dominated by non-Pashtun groups, and is a long-standing enemy of the Taliban which it is still doing battle with. Beyond that, however, he is powerless and fast becoming a liability.

3. Civil War: When the people turn on each other as a result of the occupation, you know you’re not doing a very good job. Iraq is a prime example of this, with the Sunni minority doing battle with the Shia majority and the US and its allies playing the role of arbiter. No one, especially the Iraqi people, can forget the carnage of that episode. But worrying still is how Afghanistan is going in the exact same direction. While the country is no stranger to civil war, it is clear that it has been inching in that direction for years now and another civil war seems inevitable. And when that happens, the general chaos tends to be blamed on the occupation force. Not only is their presence seen as the catalyzing force, which it usually is, but their inability to contain the situation also makes them accountable.

4. Unclear Enemy: While the US and its allies have always claimed that their fight is with the Taliban on behalf of the Afghani people, the reality is quite different. The line between Taliban and Pashtuni’s became blurred sometime ago, with US and Coalition forces now waging war on the dominant ethnic group. This is not a choice position for an occupier to be in. When you can’t tell the difference between your enemy and the general population, you know you’re in trouble. When the line that separates them becomes blurred, and not just to you, you know your mission is doomed to failure. In any failed occupation, this is precisely what happened. What began as a controlled, limited engagement, spilled over and became messy, brutal and confusing. This is what happened to the United States in Vietnam and to the Russians in Afghanistan, not to mention every colonial ruler everywhere. And, inevitably, it backfired… horribly!

5. Criticism at Home and Abroad: When your own people begin to criticize you, not to mention your allies, you know you’ve overstayed your welcome. In any democracy, one cannot prosecute a war without popular support. Dictatorship’s fare slightly better with domestic opposition, but sooner or later, any war effort can be broken because of popular resistance. For years now, public opposition to the presence of US and Coalition troops has been on the rise. Recent survey’s conducted by US news services even went as far as to claim that Afghanistan was becoming “Obama’s Vietnam”. A comparison to Iraq would be more apt, but the existing metaphor has more power.

In addition, Karzai himself has become increasingly vocal in his condemnation of Coalition forces “methods”. In this respect, he is not unlike Nouri al-Maliki, the current Prime Minister of Iraq, who also skirted the fine line between supporting and condemning his US-allies. In time, Maliki even began to go as far as to say that Iraq would demand a total withdrawal of US forces if things continued on their current track. Karzai may not be in that kind of position, he knows he cannot survive without US support for the time being, but he also cannot sit idly by while Afghani civilians are killed and not speak up. In time, as civilians casualties mount, he may very well be forced to choose sides, no longer able to skirt the line between his allies and his people.

6. Widening Conflict: When your conflict begins to spill into neighboring countries, you’ve got a full blown quagmire! Remember the US bombing of Cambodia during the 70’s, which took part because US forces believed the Viet Cong were running guns through that country? Well, the outcome – hundreds of thousands of people killed, no change in the course of the war, and the rise of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – was hardly a success, regardless of what Nixon would say. Much the same is true of Iraq, where Iran began exercising a sizable influence over Shia politics in the south and had to be called in to mediate. Turkey’s border conflicts with the Northern Kurds is another example, lucky for everyone it did not end in an invasion! But in any case, the rule is clear. If you have to widen the scope of the conflict to strike at your enemy, you got a problem and need to examine your options.

For many years now, this has been the problem in Afghanistan. The conflict has been spilling over the border into Pakistan, due in part to the fact that Osama found refuge there, but also because the shared border region, which remains unsealed, is heavily populated by militants, most of whom share ethnic and cultural ties to Afghanistan Pashtuni population . The US began conducting Predator strikes in the area in 2008, and has since expanded its involvement to include special forces and CIA operatives. While the death of Bin Laden is certainly a symbolic victory for this expansion, it cannot be expected to make the war in Afghanistan itself any easier. In the long run, its more likely to destabilize Pakistan’s already shaky government and create a permanent haven for Islamic militants, much like Cambodia became a radical communist regime.

So, since the war in Afghanistan possesses all of these things in abundance, I would argue that the time has come to pack up and leave. In addition to it being a potential disaster, and that its really not making life any better for those affected, there is also the fact (as stated in my previous article) that it ceased being about Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden some time ago. Now that he is dead and his whereabouts confirmed, perhaps this is just the justification that’s needed to put an end to the last war in the “war on terror.” I doubt anyone would buy it, but what can you do?