We're all embeds now, it seems. Generation Kill was about 10 minutes in and not one person had had the courtesy to explain what the hell was going on.
Like Evan Wright, the Rolling Stone journalist on whose book the series is based, there was a sense that we were riding along on sufferance. We were not VIPs who would be carefully briefed and kept up to speed, but outsiders who would have to work things out for ourselves. Nobody was going to tell us what an AO was or gloss a 203 round or pause to translate "Oscar Mike". And worse than that, the drama actually seemed to take a delight in misleading us. The combat sequence that opened the series – a line of Humvees roaring across the desert and calling in airstrikes on a group of suspect pick-up trucks – turned out to be just a drill, an exercise in the Kuwaiti desert as a group of Marines limbered up for the invasion.
"Oscar Mike", incidentally, means "on the move", a condition both officers and men were impatient to achieve, but that didn't actually arrive until at least 45 minutes into the first episode of David Simon and Ed Burns's sand-blown account of America's assault on Baghdad. And we really were embedded here, our perspective of that conflict tightly framed by a single platoon from First Reconnaissance Battalion. As in a previous HBO soldier's tale, Band of Brothers, this was a bottom-up account of men at war, though it had not a trace of Band of Brothers' orchestral reverence for "the greatest generation". When a grand speech was made here – about the waste of war – it was accompanied by a drizzle of urine in the sand and concluded with a cynical glibness. "It's destiny, dog," said the speaker, buttoning up his flies. "White man's got to rule the world."
The script – some lines peeled whole from Wright's book – was tart and funny and plausible, a bicker of racial insult and lubricious jokes and institutional bullshit. "Police that moustache," bellowed a sergeant-major, whose obsessive priority – on the verge of a shooting war – appeared to be maintenance of the Marine Corps' "grooming standard". The Marines fumbled into their bio-chemical suits when the Scud alarm sounded, goaded the journalist ("You're gonna write about how we're all baby killers and momma rapists, huh?") and bitched about their equipment. One soldier was anxiously awaiting a bit of Humvee armour he'd had FedEx-ed at his own expense, because he didn't trust the government to get it to him on time. Others scavenged for the triple-A batteries they'd need to power their night-vision goggles. And at least one soldier saw the incompetence as a conspiracy, not a cock-up. "If Marines could get what they need when they needed it," he explained only half-jokingly, "we would be happy, and we wouldn't be ready to kill people all the time."
That they were ready – with an often callow flippancy – was part of the point here. They entered Iraq as a strange blend of tourist and psychopath. "Hey, I just waved at an Iraqi and he waved back – that was cool," said one as they trundled past bemused civilians. But when they encountered their first armed Iraqis and were ordered not to open fire, there was general disgust at a missed opportunity, rather than relief. If you were looking for an artful dramatisation of the deeper morality of the war, you were not going to get it: this was a species of tourism itself, an opportunity to visit another country, one whose inhabitants were exclusively male and disinclined to think too deeply before they pulled the trigger. But it was tourism of a very high order. Given David Simon's standing after The Wire, the temptation would be to let him take all the credit for Generation Kill's authenticity and realism, so it might be worth pointing out that it is also the work of a British independent, Company Pictures, and that this first instalment was directed by Susanna White, who did Bleak House. Some coalitions get it right.
Dr Anne Turner was also "Oscar Mike" at the beginning of A Short Stay in Switzerland, first seen rolling through Zurich on her way to a border crossing from which she knew she would not return. Frank McGuinness's drama – based on the real case of a doctor who opted for assisted suicide – then flashed back to a family wedding, to reveal that its central character was bossy, controlling and had a sharp tongue. Not unlikeable, certainly, but not, in Julie Walters' excellent, mercurial performance, the sainted martyr of a propaganda piece. Having endured her husband's agonising slide to death with a degenerative disease, she decided to beat the disease to the terminus when she was told that she was travelling the same route. I could have done without the flutes, needlessly insisting on the sorrow this state of affairs would induce, but the drama itself tightened a hand around your throat until it ached.Reuse content