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Generation Kill - From The Wire... to war

David Simon has turned his acerbic eye to the invasion of Iraq. He tells Stephen Phelan why 'Generation Kill' is the definition of reality TV

This is war. A convoy of highly-trained, heavily-armed, hyper-caffeinated American Marines rolls towards Baghdad in open-top Humvees. En route, these men follow poor instructions and bad directions, taking both friendly and enemy fire while struggling to obey changeable rules of engagement that needlessly endanger their lives, and result in numerous civilian deaths.

They complain constantly, swear pornographically, and sing past or current pop hits when bored, which is often. It makes for phenomenal viewing. "And it's all true," says David Simon of his new seven-part miniseries Generation Kill, adapted from Evan Wright's non-fiction book about the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. "Evan really did get the perspective of these guys in the Humvees. This is what they thought and feared. This is how they regarded command. We wanted to get it exactly right."

Generation Kill begins on British television next week, courtesy of the FX channel, which also imported Simon's previous series, The Wire.

Sitting in a Glasgow hotel lounge and feeling "like a tourist", Simon sounds knackered. This flying promotional visit comes after a year of near-constant travel. He and his regular writing partner Ed Burns were scouting locations for Generation Kill in Africa before they had even finished The Wire.

Simon went home to shoot the final season in Baltimore while Burns stayed on to supervise production in Mozambique, Namibia and the South African town of Upington, all substitutes for Iraq.

To a fan, he seems as out of place away from Baltimore as some of his characters might. "Why would anyone ever wanna leave?" asked The Wire's Bodie Broadus, during his first and last venture beyond the streets that he knew.

He and Ed Burns developed their own ideas about urban institutions through years of experience as a crime reporter and a homicide detective, respectively. "We had certain theories about newspapers, and municipal politics, and the drug war, and the education system..."

All of these found expression at some point on The Wire, between 2002 and 2008. Meanwhile, the country had been at war for the entire duration of the series. Simon has admitted that Generation Kill is partly an attempt to redress their lack of attention to recent events far outside Baltimore city limits.

"We weren't exactly the only ones," he says. "Most Americans, and probably most British, have opted out of any connection to this war. We knew we had our work cut out for us trying to tell a story about something that so many people are turning away from.

"People who were for the war would not want to watch, because there are things in it that would disturb them. People who were against it want to have their arguments without actually seeing what we've done to Iraqis."

The ratings so far bear this out. Three and a half million tuned in to Generation Kill when it was first shown in the US last summer, which sounds like a pretty good number for a broadcast on HBO, until Simon points out that twice as many watched the historical drama John Adams on the same channel.

There was always a vicarious element of danger-tourism among those who made The Wire fashionable in Britain. "Any show that takes you to a culture not your own is in some ways a travelogue." The same must now apply to Generation Kill.

Evan Wright's book actually reads like a road trip through modern warfare. Wright spent three weeks with a company from the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, and witnessed what was then called Operation Iraqi Freedom from the back seat of a Humvee.

Prevailing military doctrine barely permitted these marines to slow down on their way through Fedayeen ambushes, wrongful shootings, and humanitarian crises. If the raw recruit sitting beside him was insensitive to all this, the proud, disciplined specialist in the front was insulted to be driving "a parade of officers and sub-human morons across Mesopotamia".

"They are screwing this up," Sergeant Brad "Iceman" Colbert told Wright after yet another killing of Iraqi civilians. "These idiots. Don't they realise the world already hates us?"

Colbert and his comrades are quoted verbatim in the screenplay for Generation Kill. "Obviously there is artifice involved," says Simon. "This is not a documentary. But there are facts in Evan's book that are not in dispute. This project really did endeavour to follow the book, and depict combat on the road to Baghdad as it actually was for these guys."

Which is to say, whatever comedy you might find in Generation Kill is transcribed from the marines' own brand of surpassingly vulgar humour. All the drama is re-enacted from their first-hand experiences of mortal danger and moral conflict. And politics, according to Simon, are "beside the point".

"The truth is that manoeuvre warfare really did topple the Iraqi regime in a matter of weeks, with a minimum of casualties on the American side. These men did accomplish their mission. But once Iraq was conquered there were all sorts of questions that hadn't been answered. Generation Kill is about a military success, and a civil failure."

Simon claims to have no agenda other than verisimilitude. "We're aggressive about that," he says of himself and Burns. What some might perceive as a common theme in his writing – the commanders of Generation Kill are no more or less negligent of professional ethics than the police chiefs, city leaders and news editors of The Wire – Simon ascribes to realism. "Maybe we said universal things about institutions in The Wire," he told Baltimore Magazine.

That show is now routinely referred to as a "masterpiece", but he says his ambitions in making it were never artistic. His wife, Laura Lippman, gets "especially exercised" when critics elevate him to the Western canon. They met at the Baltimore Sun, where Simon was a police reporter from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, when he switched career to work on the cop show inspired by his first book, 1991's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

According to Simon, he was more pushed than pulled. His reasons for leaving that paper are a matter of record, not least because of his decision to base the final season of The Wire around such a thinly-fictionalised version of the Sun. Simon didn't even change the name, adding fresh ink to old grudges against his former colleagues and drawing the only bad press that the series received.

"Apparently, when you offer a fair and aggressive critique of social problems, this is an act of storytelling heroism for which you will be applauded," says Simon. "When you apply the same rigour to asking what's happened to American newspapers, this is interpreted as revenge, or Schadenfreude."

Nobody could honestly deny the reality of the budget cuts detailed in The Wire. This decline, as Simon suggests, is universal. But his response is the product of a particular sensibility. It might be generational. Where the young men who invaded Iraq were raised in an age of disengagement, Simon was still at an impressionable age when Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon, and he followed their example into journalism. "After Vietnam, we told ourselves coverage was going to be specialised. We had already conceded the daily part to television, so from now on the prime story wouldn't be what happened yesterday, but why... But I gave up on the notion of newspapers having any effect when the papers themselves gave up on the idea of explaining a complex world."

While there is no end of bad television, Simon's faith in narrative itself remains absolute. "I would have been happy if everyone watched The Wire. I didn't want to exclude people. But neither did I want to slow down or dumb down. It wasn't just entertainment. TV has been a passive medium for so long.

"The obligation on us was to make sure all the details made sense. The obligation on you was to pay attention. That's the optimum exchange we wanted." Generation Kill is no less esoteric in its language and detail. But the viewer still feels that their world is being explained to them. Mediocrity rules – on the battlefield, on television, and everywhere else. David Simon has become the exception by asking how, and why, our standards have fallen so low.

'Generation Kill' starts on FX on 25 January