Sunday, August 10, 2008

Generation Kill, "A Burning Dog": A bridge too pothole-riddled

Spoilers for the latest episode of "Generation Kill" coming up just as soon as I enter my Ferrari into a demolition derby...

"This is why we're here." -Encino Man

We're in the home stretch now, and "A Burning Dog" presents the longest, most thrilling/frightening combat sequence yet, as First Recon gets ambushed on a bridge at nightfall, saved only by the Spidey-sense of Iceman Colbert. But even though the firefight, shot predominantly from the point of view of the Marines' night vision goggles and target scopes, was impressive, what really stands out in this episode is the arc for Lt. Fick.

(And allow me to pause for a moment to warn you that this post is going to be about as political as I get on this blog. When you're discussing a docudrama about an ongoing war, one that pointedly and repeatedly criticizes the tactics and philosophies behind it, it becomes hard to discuss it without in some way agreeing or disagreeing -- and therefore attacking or defending the architects of said war.)

Early on, after he awesomely pulls rank on Casey Kasem ("And nobody f-ing spoke to you!") and accepts Encino Man's peace offering, he reluctantly turns into a spokesman for the same messed-up command hierarchy that he's been trying to protect his men from since the invasion began. Even as he's doing it, even as he's shutting down complaints from Colbert and the others, he knows he's making a tough choice, maybe the wrong choice, to honor the olive branch from a superior officer. But if he's had questions about command from the start of the invasion, he's never questioned the invasion itself... until Meesh explains about the Syrian student who entered Iraq after the invasion started with "jihad" listed on his passport as his reason for entering the country.

Encino Man is too thick-headed to understand what that means, but Fick gets it, asking Gunny Wynn, "Isn't this the exact opposite of what we wanted to have happen?"

Early in the episode, one of the Marines complains that "We keep making the same f-ing mistakes." All of them in some way stem from arrogance, from the leaders of this invasion -- whether it's someone at Encino Man's level, or Godfather's, or Rumsfeld's, or President Bush himself -- believing beyond a shadow of a doubt that they know what they're doing, and that they can impose their will on others to achieve the result they want. And just as no one put enough thought into how we would go about rebuilding Iraq after we deposed Saddam, it never occurred to anyone that, if the terrorists claimed to hate us for meddling too much in other people's affairs, then invading a sovereign nation (albeit one run by a very bad man) might actually generate more anti-US sentiments, not less.

While Fick is realizing the dangers of being a true believer going against other true believers, the episode's other major character movement contrasts how Iceman is holding up under the strains of the mission with how Hasser the turret gunner is taking things. As the man riding up top (and a mid-mission swap for Garza at that), Hasser hasn't gotten as much screen time as the other four guys in the Humvee, but all we need to know here is that he's too tired to function properly and too wired to sleep. Colbert can take a dump tactically, can get tiny amounts of sleep when the opportunity arises, and can summon enough focus in spite of the fatigue to foil the ambush before it even started. Hasser's not superhuman like that; he's all too human, a point brought painfully home when he shoots and kills the driver of a car at the roadblock without waiting for Brad's gas grenade plan to work. It's not that Hasser is necessarily wrong, but that nobody should be asked to make such a fine judgment call under these physical conditions, and yet that's what the Marines have to do all the time. Even Colbert quickly recognizes that there's no point in chewing him out, that this is unfortunate fallout from the nature and stresses of their mission, but for a second there, the Iceman facade cracks, badly.

Some other thoughts on "A Burning Dog":

• Major Eckloff, the officer who marches onto the bridge and gives Encino Man the football-themed pep talk, is played by Ben Busch, whom "Wire" fans might recognize as Officer Colicchio, the hot-headed Western district narcotics cop with the awful haircut. Busch actually served as a Marine for two tours in Iraq, rising to the rank of Lt. Colonel. Note that Eckloff can tell how badly Encino Man is handling things, but rather then chew him out, he gives him a pep talk in a language (football) that he knows the guy can understand. That's something resembling genuine leadership, and it's the kind of thing First Recon could use a lot more of.

• Also note that Eckloff is able to shut down Captain America with little more than a stare. Even though he's heeded Kocher's warning about the AK's (he gathers up a bunch and then tosses them into the river), he seems more out of control than ever.

• I like the moment where the reporter comes to Colbert with what he thinks is a brilliant, left-field observation about where the mortar fire has been coming from, and Colbert politely but firmly explains that he knows what he's doing, thank you very much.

• Despite all the heavy fire they've taken, Pappy having to be casevac'ed because of his foot is the only real loss the Marines have suffered so far. As Pappy himself notes earlier in the episode, they're so good at what they do that they're preventing command from realizing what asinine decisions they keep making.

What did everybody else think?


Michael Cowgill said...

Maybe the best episode yet. The tension and suspense on the bridge scene was almost uncomfortable to watch, especially in brilliant moments like Person stepping out to plead for someone to back up while gunfire's going on all around him -- intense and yet funny somehow.

Seeing Fick and Colbert at odds was a strange new layer. You can sympathize with Fick's position, even as you become more frustrated with him, and then you have a great moment where Colbert convinces him to allow the use of the smoke grenade by pleading to his better angels and, in a way, using the same tactics he uses with his own men.

For some reason, I find myself disliking Casey Kasem more than Encino Man or Captain America. The latter two are incompetent and sometimes self-centered. Casey Kasem seems like a genuine, first-rate a-hole, and Fick's takedown of him was sort of glorious.

Unknown said...

The bridge ambush was very well done. The whole series is just remarkable.

I don't remember Fick getting so gung ho in the book for the drive into Al Muwaffiqiyah but Evan Wright wrote the teleplay for this one so maybe he was incorporating larger picture narratives into this episode.

One thing I wished they had kept in is how Hasser's eye shot didn't actually kill that guy and how that was dealt with, but I think that may have been difficult to put on film.

Hopefully they keep Captain America's bayonet exploits in the next episode.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember Fick getting so gung ho in the book for the drive into Al Muwaffiqiyah

I read the book fairly recently, and I can say reasonable certainty that that scene is in the book. Wright even notes that it's unusual to see Fick being so "moto."

Tim said...

Great episode. That town exploding was a real gut shot.

This is probably the least important thing, but when they're wiring the school, they point out how everything is in English and the kids draw girls with blond hair. What's up with that? Is that just a cultural thing?

Anonymous said...

What I thought was even stranger about the school scene was the English alphabet strung up above the blackboard (like I'm sure we all had in school... Aa Bb Cc etc).

I really love this series, and have started reading the book too which is even more phenomenal. I'm not sure if I can exactly pin down what it is I'm loving about it so much - the camaraderie of the men, the selfless exploits, how they persevere in spite of the stupid/moronic leadership, if it's Simon/Burns production or Wright's writing - but this is a great series and I hope that it gets the awards it deserves.

SJ said...

This is the episode which is almost EXACTLY like the book. It's like how I envisioned it when I read the book. Searching the Syrian Jihadi, the school scene, the intense's like seeing the book come to life.

One thing I have always wondered about though since I started watching the miniseries...what does Fick think of his portrayal? I know Encino Man has a lot of issues with the book (he started a blog somewhere).

Anonymous said...

Major Eckloff on the bridge was surprising to me. Before that assertive display of leadership, all you saw him doing was smiling proudly next to Godfather, hinging on every word. The way they filmed him made him look like another sycophant/tool. I suppose, in retrospect, he had a bit of backbone when Godfather asked them to rapid-recon ("assault") the airfield, but he of course ultimately fell in in line with that decision.

Anonymous said...

you knew david simon somehow had to get his liberal anti war point across. it was bound to happen. might be also why it isn't a very good miniseries.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the last comment, troll!

I find myself falling in love with this miniseries and am greatly disappointed that there will not be a follow-up to see these guys in action after "Mission Accomplished".

As an aside - I didn't read the book yet, but is there a lot of description of what they did in Afghanistan. From their conversations, it seems like the Recon unit was actually able to do what they do without stupid interference from on-high. Was this how it was in Afghanistan?

I'm presuming that since the Bush administration was so hard-on for invading Iraq that they wouldn't really even care what happened in Afghanistan - which oddly might make it more effective, since the fighting would be left to those who did it best.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading the book now, and there's not a whole lot in there about what they did in Afghanistan. I was curious too, and spent about 10 minutes trying to Google it, but didn't find much of interest (whereas you can find some detailed stuff about what they did in Iraq that seems to come from the Marine Corps itself, and not from HBO or Evan Wright).

For the troll above, all of that "anti-war" stuff is taken right from the book, pretty much verbatim.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering how the ratings for Generation Kill were going. This miniseries is fantastic, heart-breaking, infuriating, and inspiring. I really hope it's getting the audience it deserves.

I also put the book on my wishlist on Amazon.

Mark said...

I'm not trolling, nor do I want to pour gas on the fire, but I used to be "pro-Iraq war", and still think it was a (relatively) good decision.

However, I don't find think this series is piece of agit-prop at all. I think Simon and Burns probably tilt liberal, but put storytelling and action front and center, the way it should be. Furthermore, most of the criticisms of war or the Marine Corps referenced in the series date back well before the Bush era. Anyone who has read Ricks (I'm referring to his Making the Corps book, written during the Clinton administration) or Fussell will be familiar with the many of the issues that the Marines complain or talk about.

That said, I don't want to be tagged as this threads resident neo-con. Given what the Iraqi PM said recently, I think Obama is right about pulling troops out of Iraq. If I could vote, I'd be writing in Ron Paul or pulling the lever for Bob Barr.

TODD said...

I'm reading the book now, and there's not a whole lot in there about what they did in Afghanistan.

I'm reading Ficks book, which is also very good. He covers everything from ROTC, thru OCS, to deployment pre9/11, as well as Afghanistan, and Iraq. I don't recall anything off hand, but the Afghanistan invasion was much less of a Charlie Foxtrot. Even though it was a scarier invasion initially because of the number of Russians/Pakistani's killed trying to invade them over the years.

Anonymous said...

I finally watched the replay of this last night and wondered to myself, what if Fick is wrong? What if this is exactly what our "leaders" were attempting to do? Rather than worry about fighting Jihad within our borders they've created a real life Thunderdome in which our most highly trained warriors openly fight Islamic Extremism from a distance.

Anonymous said...

Charlie Foxtrot...nice.

The thing I love about Simon's work is that I can watch these over and over again. I'm a Wire fanatic who just I just re-subscribed to HBO so I could see this show and Hard Knocks. I've watched each episode twice on On Demand...starting my third lap tonight. Each time you watch, the shows gets better.

I have shows like LOST on DVD and once you watch it once, there's no point in watching it again. I tell all my friends that comparing The Wire to your typical cop show or movie is like comparing a classic novel to Hardy Boys.

Looks like this one is doing the same for the war genre.

Anonymous said...

What was the last line of the episode that skarsgaard says twice?!!! I could not make it out!

Unknown said...

He just says "We're Oscar Mike" which is marine-speak for "we're heading out," i.e. (o)n the (m)ove.

Abbie said...

I just watched this episode, and I just want to give the writers & actors credit for pronouncing Ray Person's hometown's name correctly: Nevada, Missouri (the first a is long). I know it's a random comment, but you have no idea how excited I was. Attention to real detail.
We have a lot of towns in this state with bizarre pronunciations, but it separates the pretentious from the natives.