Monday, August 11, 2008

The incredible story behind "Generation Kill"


You see it on the screen, and it seems very realistic: A group of the U.S. military's elite fighting forces, the First Reconnaissance Battalion of Marines, operating behind enemy lines in the opening days of the Iraq War in HBO's gritty new drama miniseries, "Generation Kill."

What you probably don't know is how amazingly realistic it is — and what one journalist went through in order to write the story that the creators of "The Wire" would then convert into the television event of the summer.

At the time, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 seemed like a high-tech race to Baghdad, with bunker busters and 3-D maps and real-time video from sat phones.

But in Evan Wright’s mesmerizing book Generation Kill — and the faithful adaptation of it currently airing on HBO — the war plays out more like Hannibal’s army on elephants: slower, dustier and a whole lot bloodier than what we saw on the news.

On assignment for Rolling Stone, Wright was an embedded reporter with the Marines of Bravo Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, who acted as the “spear tip” of the invasion. Severing all contact with the outside world, Wright joined the fewer than 400 men who lumbered northward in aging Humvees toward the Iraqi capital, often ahead of all other U.S. forces, taking on and returning enemy fire through 16 firefights.

Despite the constant peril — the chilling ambush that opens the book would prove typical — Wright stayed embedded and won the Marines’ trust. He kept copious notes, in pen. When there was a break in the action, he would interview others, triangulating their recollections to create vivid and accurate accounts of what they were going through.

The first Marine he bonded with was Lt. Nathaniel Fick, the platoon’s Dartmouth-educated commander. Wright had studied medieval history, and Fick, who was interested in antiquity, would soon become Virgil to his Dante, guiding the author through the rings of Hell en route to Baghdad.

“Every time (the convoy stopped), I would get out and go to Fick and say, ‘What happened?’ ” Wright says. “As a result, my book is written with an artificial omniscience.”

Wright says Fick made one request of him, and it’s a line heard in this second episode of “Generation Kill”: Turning to the reporter (played by Lee Tergesen), Fick (Stark Sands) says simply, “Write this as you see it.”

The author wrote down what he heard as well, and these conversations among the men of Bravo Company are what endear them to the reader. Postmodern accounts of war, like the novel The Farther Shore by Kansas Citian Matthew Eck, plunge the reader into the disorienting fog of war.

Wright, by contrast, calls attention to the community formed by the Marines of Bravo Company, primarily through storytelling and shared experience. The fog, or dust cloud, is still there, but it often seems unimportant to these expertly trained killers, who pride themselves on being utterly prepared for anything.

When Wright got home, he transcribed 1,000 pages of material from his notes and wrote “The Killer Elite,” a three-part series for the magazine. Empathy combined with hard work and the luxury of magazine deadlines resulted in an instant classic of war journalism.

“Not only did he have the time to construct a coherent and almost artistic narrative,” an admiring reviewer later wrote, “but also he was writing for a publication willing to print the unexpurgated musings of the Marines. Wright could include the homoerotic joking, their violent fantasies and even their discussions of bowel movements.”

“The Killer Elite” was optioned by HBO, which also bought the rights to Wright’s book-length version. Yet it would be two years before the story of this new band of brothers would find its way into the hands of producers who were ideally suited — perhaps even predestined — to bring it to the small screen.

Through storytelling and shared experience, HBO’s “Generation Kill” focuses on the community of the Marines of Bravo Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion. Jonah Lotan, who plays Doc, helps a child in this scene.

David Simon had just wrapped the third season of “The Wire,” another gritty study of an American subculture, when Kary Antholis, a senior vice president of HBO Films, offered him Generation Kill.

A former newspaper writer, Simon had read In the Company of Soldiers by former KC Star reporter Rick Atkinson, but hadn’t heard of Wright’s book until then. He immediately took to it and told the author at their first meeting that he wanted to reproduce it as closely as possible.

“We’re going to make your book if we can,” he said.

Ed Burns, Simon’s co-executive producer, broke down the book into scripts while Simon involved Wright in writing, casting and the training of actors on location in Africa.


Both men credit Eric Kocher — who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and was hired as a key military adviser for the TV series— with ensuring the final product was both accurate and realistic from a Marine’s point of view. (Above: Simon, Kocher and Burns on the set in Africa.)

During the intensive mixing of the series’ multilayered audio track, Kocher wrote much of the radio chatter and suggested other lines that could be dropped into the background (“Semper Gumby — always flexible!”).

As the final episodes were in post-production, Kocher started firing off increasingly antagonistic e-mails complaining about the so-called light armored vehicles. They were not actual “LAVs,” in fact, but South African-made trucks that the producers tried to pass off as LAVs on screen. Finally, Kocher declared that the fake LAVs made him “want to vomit.”

Freedom isn’t free — nor, it turns out, is verisimilitude. HBO spent $210,000 to have the vehicles digitally altered to look like the real deals.

I’m at poolside with Kocher, Wright, Simon, P.J. Ransone (one of the actors) and another First Recon member, Jeff Carisalez, who advised on the series.

They’re sitting around a table, eating, drinking, telling stories on one another and laughing uproariously. Having gone through unbelievable violence together, both inflicted and suffered, these men now proudly belong to the P-T-S fraternity. (“To me,” says Kocher, “it’s not a disorder. It’s just P-T-S: post-traumatic stress.”)

As the storytelling gets louder, Wright leans over my recorder.

“Strange as it sounds,” he says, “when I was in Iraq, we were up on this one bridge about 20 kilometers from any other U.S. forces. We were totally surrounded. There were only about 50 of us. And — it was fun. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the way we’re wired as humans, or as men.”