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War on moral relativism


Towards the end of Generation Kill one of the marines observes that they have done their bit, while another notes that if they had been back in the US and had done what they had done, they would be in prison for the rest of their lives. Thus is the central dilemma of Generation Kill and, it would seem, the modern (Hollywood ?) soldier.

Generation Kill is a new(ish) take on the well-worn combat genre. It picks up many of the tropes of the combat film as particularly articulated by Jeanine Basinger (The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre 2003); we see two mail call scenes; there is a particular focus on equipment; the enemy are mostly distant, unseen and can strike at any time and so on. What I find is interesting is the extent to which the series picks up the themes of the 1980s Vietnam War films – the confusion of war; the confusion of purpose; the killing of civilians and, very strongly, the theme of the incompetence of officers. It also draws on the idea strongly expressed in Black Hawk Down that the rationale for fighting is not necessarily for the wider good but is “for the man beside you.” Unlike Black Hawk however, motivation is not that simple, and each marine has a slightly different set of reasons which have brought them to the frontline of the invasion of Iraq.

Picked up is also some of the black comedy of films about the first Gulf War, particularly Three Kings and Jarhead. In both of these films there was a strong focus on the confusion of these wars, on the sense that the American forces were largely wandering about aimlessly in the desert with little real strategic purpose or mission. There is a fair bit of this in Generation Kill with the humvees rolling combat-less from one abandoned mission to the pointless seizing of an undefended airfield. There is a touch of the black humour of these films, though it is rather more tempered than in either of them.

One of the very interesting aspect of the film is how it deals with the (rather large) number of civilian casualties the platoon we are following racks up. It is clear that the more seasoned soldiers find it appalling and wrong, but they are also clearly hardened to it. The wrongness is not generally expressed in a sense of moral anguish, but in terms of the self-defeating nature of it, the way that it undermines the purpose of what they can achieve. I think that what we are presented is not the sense that they don’t care, but the way that it is necessary for career military to process these deaths to maintain their own sanity. They also seem to hate the unprofessionalism it represents; it is poorly done work and this disappoints their pride in their own role, their work as “warriors”. But there is a moral element to it – when a young shepherd is shot and the “Godfather”, their lieutenant colonel is not willing to “cas-evac” him to the nearest trauma centre, some of the seasoned soldiers bring him to the tent next to the Godfather to die, exerting moral pressure on the Godfather who then allows the evacuation. These are not unthinking baby-killers, even if they are inadvertent ones.

Nonetheless, the approach to the civilian deaths is just a bit too glib at times. Tremont, the youngest of the soldiers, gets the moniker of “Whopper Junior” to highlight his status as a baby-killer, and his fellow soldiers can’t help but admire his aim. Tremont has to be given a speech by the Gunnery Sergeant about the fact that Iraqis are people too. When another soldier kills a civilian at a roadblock because he fires without orders he is traumatised; but his lieutenant assures him that he “has done nothing wrong” when clearly his crack in concentration has resulted in a death. I wonder if the show gives the marines a little too much of a free pass at times regarding the civilian casualties, but it does also show the way that the Rules of Engagement and the pressure to follow orders, no matter how ridiculous, leads to these things. In this way Generation Kill offers a significant critique of the entire military effort; we see the RoEs go from only firing on clearly hostile and armed targets to essentially free-fire within days. And the priorities of the most of officers are clearly whacked – the Godfather seems obsessed with proving that they are “on the general’s radar” while Captain “Encino Man” gives orders without any thought for the implication for the men.

The roles of Encino Man and “Captain America”, the incompetent lieutenant who freaks out in every battle, fires of captured enemy AK-47s at random and attempts to bayonet captured soldiers on at least two occasions, echoes the theme of weak or incompetent officers which is apparent in a number of the mid-late 1980s films about Vietnam. This increases the idea that the men really have only themselves and each other to rely upon, a theme which has grown in strength in combat films particularly since Black Hawk Down. This idea helps to remove the politics from the arena of the soldiers, but this depiction of politics in the post Gulf War one era is different from that of the Vietnam era films. In these films the politics was often considered satirically and dismissed or viewed as completely irrelevant. What we see in Generation Kill is not a dismissal of the politics, even if they are not wholeheartedly embraced. There is clearly an awareness of Vietnam which is apparent in the language used and the approaches taken – at one point when a grateful Iraqi kisses the lieutenant, Ray yells “It looks like you have won some hearts and minds there.” When the marines are told they no longer need to wear their chemical weapon suits, the embedded Rolling Stone reporter notes with horror that this means that the whole invasion is probably illegitimate, however the marines barely notice. Marines like Sergeant Colbert who worry that the approach to the invasion is “fucking it up” clearly have some concept of and belief in the politics driving the war, but it is not discussed in the sense of being zealots for a cause. Many of these men are career soldiers who see themselves as warriors and take pride in their professionalism. They toast their service in Afghanistan which they see as a real war, a war which requires warriors, rather than the disorganised chaos of the invasion.

The bonus of the ensemble cast approach to Generation Kill is that the multiplicity of views and the complexity of the American actions in Iraq can be extensively explored. I think it achieves this, but I also think that the reluctance of post 1980s American popular discourse to criticise US servicemen and women themselves too much – the “love the soldier, hate the war” attitude – is also clearly at work. The US media, even the more liberal side of the media and entertainment worlds, tends to fall over themselves to humanise or even honour serving military, that I think there is a danger that some of the horrors of war are underplayed. The idea that we should not “spit on” returning troops has embedded a reluctance to criticise the ordinary servicemen or women too much. What needs to be remembered is that much of the “spitting on” was mythological or exaggerated, a tactic of the right. Soldiers should not be demonised, but they also shouldn’t be let off the hook for indiscriminately killing civilians. I think we are still struggling to find this balance.

Generation Kill is totally worth the effort (and conveniently is currently showing at 9.30pm on Mondays on ABC 2). It is a modern examination of a modern war, much more alive and real than the stodginess of something like The Pacific with its completely conventional take on the dilemmas of death-dealing.





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