war on the rocks

What ‘Generation Kill’ Tells a French Soldier About U.S. Military Culture

May 24, 2018

Beyond the 24/7 dining facilities and the seemingly abundant supplies of everything, there is one thing all French soldiers are jealous of when they look at the U.S. military: the representation of military operations and war stories in popular culture, especially in movies and TV shows. If you’re a French service member, you are condemned to a virtual nonexistence in your country’s cultural scene — unless you count the old, goofy draft-related comedies of the ‘70s or the experimental projects that barely relate to the realistic depiction of war. So, we all look across the Atlantic and marvel at the fact that the Vietnam War alone has led to the creation of timeless masterpieces such as Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, to name just two.

Popular depictions of war are essential because they help connect a military institution that tends to shroud itself in secrecy with the population it defends. Culture, as a whole, helps a nation process the scars of history. For example, the depiction of the Vietnam War through countless movies, series, and books, even terrible ones, changed the way American society looks at the war in hindsight. Looking at France, I am also convinced that had we made a similar effort with the traumatic war in Algeria, we would probably have a less schizophrenic relationship with that conflict today.

But this is not the case yet, so for the time being, we are left with what Hollywood gives us. The fact that the French and the Americans have recently fought together in Afghanistan and other places certainly helps make recent American productions more relatable. But in addition to the cathartic effects of war movies and TV shows, there is another reason to watch them: for what they reveal about the military culture of a nation. With this in mind, I recently viewed the HBO show “Generation Kill,” produced by David Simon and adapted from the eponymous book by Evan Wright, eager to see if it was as realistic as I had been told it would be. And it was. What the show tells us about U.S. military culture is very consistent with my experience of it.

I am a French infantry officer and Afghanistan veteran, but also a U.S. Army Command and General Staff College graduate. During my stay at Fort Leavenworth, I did some research on French and American military culture and their recent evolutions. I believe I have attained a solid understanding of the U.S. military in general, and in particular of the U.S. Army, but regardless of how hard I try, I must acknowledge that I will always subconsciously tend to be more indulgent towards the French military’s flaws.

“Generation Kill” is a 2008 HBO-produced miniseries that follows a U.S. Marine reconnaissance battalion during the first week of Operation Iraqi Freedom, in the spring of 2003. It mirrors the experience of a journalist embedded in a platoon and follows closely the marines and their leadership from the Kuwaiti border to Baghdad. It does not rely on narrative arcs or character depiction so much as it tries to record the experience of war in as many concrete aspects, and as close to the eyes of soldiers, as possible.

The precision of the language used in dialogues is the first thing that stood out to me. The marines depicted in the show are utterly believable. Their constant banter, profanity, and gung-ho attitude in the way they address one another immediately struck a chord with my own experience as a foreign officer embedded in the U.S. Army. The subtle mentions of the marines’ respective backgrounds, as well as the remnants of racial, social, and even sexual tension rendered the entire experience deliciously complex, almost lifelike. Cultural references and language aside, the on-screen marines reminded me of the soldiers I deployed and fought with in Afghanistan. This should not have been a surprise, familiar as I was with the excruciating attention to details David Simon has given to his previous works — most notably, “The Wire,” itself so viewer-unfriendly when it comes to language that I remember having to pause every five seconds to make sense of what had just been said. The effort put into creating credible conversations and complex characters, and the accurate on-screen description of what a combat situation feels like, told me that there had been some solid research behind the making of this series.

But where the TV series truly stood out is in what it taught me about U.S. military culture in general and the specific culture of the Marine Corps in particular, especially when compared to French military culture.

The French Army and the U.S. Marine Corps share some things in common: Both have acquired significant combat experience in complex environments over the last two decades, both are all-volunteer forces existing within Western democracies and, to some degree, struggling to stay connected to the societies they belong to (though some argue the Marines have fared better on this count than the other services). Both are relatively small, almost self-contained forces. Both unconsciously take pride in the ability to make do without the necessary stuff, to make things happen on the fly, to make things work when nothing seems to be working. Both also tend to look with a mixture of jealousy and contempt — depending on the situation — at the seemingly ever-abundant supplies and logistics of the U.S. Army. One early scene in Generation Kill, in which marines complain that they had to buy batteries and other small pieces of equipment with their own money, could have guest-starred French soldiers — even though the scarcity of equipment and supplies has improved over the following years, at least in the French Army. At the company and battalion level, both militaries are not very different from each other. Above these levels, however, the comparison is less relevant, simply because the U.S. military is much larger than the French.

Still, there are plenty of interesting aspects to be uncovered, even at the company level. The first element of U.S. military culture that stands out — and is not unique to “Generation Kill” — is the narrative focus on non-commissioned officers, at the squad leader level and above. This is, by far, the most critical point, because it connects to about everything else. Non-commissioned officers are the intermediate management level in the military. They are the squad leaders, the experts, the guys who turn orders from the leadership into action on the field. Usually more experienced than enlisted soldiers and longer-tenured than officers, squad and fire team leaders are overwhelmingly the focal point of U.S. military fiction at company level. None of this is surprising, because they offer the most immediately relatable blend of leadership and experience, while junior officers are often portrayed as a mere nuisance, ill-prepared, and awkward with their subordinates, when not utterly incompetent. Woe indeed to the second lieutenant who appears in a movie about the U.S. military.

This, obviously, borders on the caricature — but any good satire is grounded in reality. And in this case, the reality is that basic training for junior officers in the U.S. Marine Corps is, well, basic, totaling between nine and 12 months depending on specialty. In comparison, the average officer in the French Army will undergo a bare minimum of 18 months of military training before being assigned to a combat unit. When I received command of an infantry platoon, I was terrified and still had a lot to learn, but as a young lieutenant, I was proficient with every weapon, weapon system, and vehicle in my platoon, I had undergone extensive training in urban combat, open terrain, desert, mountain, jungle, commando, and airborne warfare. I was young and immature — like any post-college kid — but I was technically ready. My platoon sergeant taught me the essential things you cannot train for — the daily interactions with soldiers, the subtleties of life in a combat unit — but he did not have to tell me where to go or what to do. I have compared my experience to those of U.S. officers and I was genuinely surprised when they told me how unprepared they felt when they joined their first unit — unless they were former NCOs.

Pop culture, in this case, reflects reality: Junior officers are not exactly portrayed with admiration in “Generation Kill,” as it is in just about every comparable movie or TV show. They are constantly pressured by a very aggressive chain of command, to which it is almost impossible to say no. This trait is difficult to understand from a French perspective: Discipline is discipline, sure, but you’re expected to voice your concerns, and your boss is expected to take them into consideration. The principles of “freely accepted discipline,” based on mutual trust, exigence, communication, and initiative, have been described in the French leadership doctrine since at least 1980. I personally witnessed in training exercises with U.S. officers the difference in culture regarding interactions with the chain of command. Consequently, when a lieutenant happens to be deliberate, thoughtful, and, God forbid, prudent in his tactical assessment, he is quickly suspected of cowardice in the face of danger, and deemed unreliable because he questioned certain decisions of his hierarchy. For example, there is one scene where a junior officer, Lt. Fick, openly resists his company commander’s decision to order an artillery strike on a non-existent RPG team. While he ultimately complies, the lieutenant is right to confront his commander about it. But he has to face the consequences afterwards, when the company gunnery sergeant, among others, spreads demeaning rumors about Fick’s performance in combat.

This minimal training also means unexperienced junior officers generally have difficulties putting their actions in in the context of the higher echelons in the chain of command — that is, seeing their actions in the field in the context of the bigger picture. As a result, the tactical assessments these officers end up making are often limited to a bare minimum, and rarely convey the complexity of combat operations in a populated zone. Most of the tactical decisions are viewed as a kill-or-be-killed situation. Combine this with the intricate situation in Iraq in particular, and the warfighting culture of the Marine Corps, and it results in a very aggressive posture, a no-holds-barred approach to any possible threat, which is clearly depicted in the series. Of course, there are many other reasons for the generally aggressive posture of U.S. military units, including an arguably Jominian approach to warfare that tends to favor the scientific combination of kinetic effects over a more politically aware vision of the conflict.

In the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, this trait might have served the U.S. military superbly, and it certainly allowed for a swift victory over the Iraqi forces. But it also set them up for difficult times in the subsequent stabilization phase, when they had to deal with the population and not bomb their way through every hamlet — a fact hinted at in the final moments of the series, when the battalion reaches Baghdad. Out of enemies to defeat and having to face the demands of a population deprived of water and other essentials, the company is surprised by a lone sniper, in what is the first signal of the growing insurgency that would emerge in Iraq over the following months. The rest is history.

One final observation about this show’s NCO-centric narrative culture is about the divide between NCOs and officers, who fight alongside one another on the field but have basically parallel career paths in the U.S. military — the former climbing the ranks to be generals, the latter to be sergeant majors, setting aside natural attrition as one rises in the hierarchy, of course. In “Generation Kill,” the battalion sergeant major is depicted as an aging Southerner obsessed with grooming standards and empowered by the commander for daily life orders enforcement. He is a caricature, but such a figure would not exist in the French Army, where the best NCOs, at different point in their careers, can and are encouraged to compete to receive a commission, to the point that they represent around half of the total officer population. Even though the Marines tend to have more NCOs becoming officers than in the other U.S. services, there is still a significant difference in proportions.

All these subtle elements were apparent in “Generation Kill,” which makes it the most credible on-screen depiction of organizational culture in the tactical units of the U.S. military I have ever seen. And I believe such depictions are valuable to the organization as well. I would love to see a TV series or movie with this level of attention to details about the French Army. It would certainly tell us a lot about the flaws in our own culture. This is something every organization needs, especially the French, who tend to be overly defensive of their own military traditions — yours truly reluctantly included.

 

Jean Michelin is an active duty French Army major, Afghanistan veteran, and U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Graduate. He currently serves as a speechwriter for NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Transformation. His combat memoir, “Jonquille,” was published in France in 2017.

Image: HBO