I have seen four of the seven parts of "Generation Kill," HBO's Iraq-war miniseries based on Evan Wright's book of the same name. (It premieres Sunday.) I expect to watch the rest, because I greatly admire what I have seen. While it hews closely to Wright's book, the miniseries has some of qualities writer-producer David Simon ("The Wire") has brought to other projects, from a love of the detail of life to the refusal to make things too easy for the audience. Like with "The Wire," "Generation Kill" drops you into the middle of life in progress; like real life, it declines to pause to explain everything -- recognize and understand the people as you go along. I won't deny that I occasionally referred to HBO-provided crib sheets (and to Wright's book) for some details, but most of the time I just kept following along the screen action until things got clear. And well before that fourht part, I was loving it.
So what on earth do I mean by the "Deadwood" reference in this post's title? Follow along ...
"Generation Kill" is not only about young men at war, although it is that, and it has echoes of other wartime epics. (As it went along, I thought of "Paths of Glory" as much as I did "Band of Brothers.") These young men are in many cases spectacularly profane and vulgar; Hustler magazine is regular reading, language marked often by deliberate, raw crudeness.
But it is also poetic at times, with a formality of rhythm and word choice that reflects the formal language of military life and of the reading and learning that some soldiers have accumulated from places other than magazine pages.
In both respects, "Generation Kill" recalls the language of "Deadwood," and in doing so, it indicates that the world of "Generation Kill" is not so far removed from that Wild West town. (You could also extend this argument to include "The Wire," but I'm going to try to stay focused here.) Both are places where moral clarity and the rule of law are hard to come by, where violence is common and predictable -- though the specific casualties may be unexpected -- and where the value of a single human life is open to debate. In both cases, too, the rawness of the language is a reflection of the harshness of the life. Men speak in a way they never would in so-called polite company, because they are far removed from politeness; there is no civility built into the rites of military life, and even those rites are bent by ambition, fear and sheer pigheadedness -- as the men who fight know all too well.
No question, the Marines of "Generation Kill" have more creature comforts than their "Deadwood" counterparts. But they wrestle with some of the same issues of humanity. Just as in "Deadwood," most people are commodities to be exploited, purchased, abused and cast aside, so a great many of the people seen in "Generation Kill" have been reduced to cannon fodder, to something to be photographed on the roadside, to an enemy "other" who is not to be compared to the Marines themselves. Of course, the Marines occasionally see the people they fight, and the ones they are supposedly helping, in clearer ways; in one telling moment, a GI wonders how Americans would feel if another country not only invaded the U.S. but paused to use their backyards as latrines. (I am, as you can imagine, cleaning up the actual dialogue.)
Still, the deeper the Marines push into Iraq, they form ever more of a frontier outpost, even if it is one constantly on the move. And as they do so, they have to make their own rules, control their own society -- and in a way create their own language. Some of it is the language of men at arms across the generations. (Ken Burns's "The War" had World War II soldiers noting the difference between how they talked on the front and how they talked at home.) But whether in war or on the frontiers of "Deadwood," it is also a language of emotional defense; if even the words you say daily are unbridled and demeaning, then you have blunted your own civility -- and made yourself more immune to the uncivilized horrors that you see in the streets or in battlefields.