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From Baltimore to Baghdad

The writing team behind The Wire has taken on the war in Iraq. The result is a new miniseries that c

When Ed Burns and David Simon finished writing The Wire they could have taken any job they wanted in Hollywood. Over six years and 60 episodes, their graphic depiction of the drugs trade on the streets of Baltimore had won so much critical praise that the satirical website the Daily Mash ran a spoof cover story claiming: "A new prostate cancer drug which could save thousands of lives is still not as good as The Wire, critics said last night." What Burns, a 62-year-old Vietnam vet and former cop, and Simon, a 48-year-old former crime reporter on the Baltimore Sun, decided to do next was Iraq - and Generation Kill is the result.

The seven-part series sounds like any smart viewer's fantasy pitch: HBO hooks up with the team behind The Wire to film the Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright's bestselling book about Operation Iraqi Freedom. Wright was embedded in the lead Humvee of a US marine reconnaissance unit - the 2nd Platoon of 1st Recon's Bravo Company - as the troops shot their way from Kuwait to Iraq in March 2003. The results are disturbing, and the script pokes at many anti-war preconceptions, showing the marines as complex, troubled and curiously caring young men, rather than trigger-happy grunts out to slot ragheads.

Fans of The Wire will rec ognise Burns's and Simon's obsession with detail. The cop show was a down-and-dirty procedural in much the same way as such shows as CSI or Law and Order. The plot was driven as much by the technical aspects of the job - be it cop, drug dealer or hack - as it was by character motivation or dramatic conflict. In many ways, Generation Kill is an Iraq War procedural. The battles, accidents and failures unroll at a steady, remorseless pace without any obvious emotional resolution or tidy endings. As a result, it feels strangely amoral - Iraqis beg the marines to root out Ba'athists in their city but the commander wants to race on and capture an airfield ahead of the British Parachute Regiment. Despite his reckless ambition, his men survive with barely a scratch. We never discover what happens to the city.

This, Burns believes, is the point. "When Evan's book was reviewed by the Marine Corps, they actually gave it a medal - so clearly they saw something worthy of the Marine Corps," he says, sitting on a hotel sofa the night after a media screening at a West End cinema. "When I read the book I thought, 'This outfit's fucked up' - the opposite of where the medal was going. So that's the conflict. If you start empa thising with the characters you'll find they do things that conflict with your ideology. That is good storytelling. It unsettles you."

Burns is, like most of Hollywood, resolutely anti-war. "The war in Iraq is a shame, a great shame," he says sadly. "You might not be able to articulate the shame as an individual American but the aura of shame is there. And you've turned your back on it. The same way that Katrina blew in and showed us that goddamned poverty was still there. You were pissed at Katrina, like - I thought those people went away!"

He is, however, unwavering in his support for the actual soldiers and critical of those on the left who don't sympathise. "Even the title Generation Kill is probably not fair," he argues. "These guys anguish over the rules of engagement. We didn't anguish over the war, we just said, 'Let's fuck 'em up.' I was in the UK last year when four British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan and on the news you saw the four coffins coming off the plane, carried in honour. In America you will never see a coffin. Even though we are more aware of these people right now, something like 18 US veterans a day commit suicide. The left is aware of that and is very apathetic towards that.

"When this thing winds down, the money's going to run out and the number of guys who are fucked up is extremely high. I live in West Virginia, about ten miles away from a Veterans Affairs hospital. Right behind it there are woods filled with camps where you'll find guys from Vietnam still camped out . . . They're left alone. That's bullshit."

The team deliberately employed veterans on the show - as trainers, advisers and even as actors. One ex-marine, Rudy Reyes, who fought in Bravo Company, plays himself in Generation Kill. He's a tall, handsome man - in the first episode, the Evan character is told: "If you fancy Rudy it doesn't mean you're gay. Everyone does" - with a body honed by years of weightlifting and martial arts. His biceps are as big as the average man's head and when he reaches out to shake hands, the muscles slide around each other like cars looking to reverse-park.

Reyes defies easy categorisation. In the late 1980s he was a member of Amnesty International and a passionate follower of all things Bono. He joined the marines in 1998 to see if he had the courage, eager to test himself in combat. He fought in Afghanistan and in Operation Iraqi Freedom and then returned to Iraq during the occupation, taking part in the brutal Battle of Fallujah at the end of 2004. During the hand-to-hand street fighting his rules of engagement included an order to open fire on any group of men numbering five or more, whether armed or not. He didn't fight, he insists, out of patriotic duty. "I really don't feel American - I feel like a human but I don't feel American," Reyes says. He also says he despises war profiteering, but "I did not see the fractures in our foreign policy or mobilisation and planning until my last tour".

After he left the Marine Corps, Reyes spiralled into depression and despair. His marriage fell apart and he spent two years "trying to survive". Taking part in Generation Kill became a kind of therapy. "By doing these traumatic scenes it helped, kind of releasing the hooks," he says softly, the words sounding strange coming from his powerful frame and square jaw. "I couldn't have asked for a more cathartic experience. There was a very hard scene where I go up to a vehicle that Alpha Company has shot up and there's this little girl. They've blown her head off." He pauses. "When I saw the little girl and saw her father begging to have her body back and having to do it over and over . . . it made me ashamed. And because we're filming this for entertainment it made me uncomfortable. But it's all more complicated than that - this programme isn't just entertainment, which is what I like about it." He grins. "And that's why I think it was not very well received in the United States. We want things wrapped up in a package with a bow. We don't want to think, we want someone to tell us."

The war in Iraq has generally failed to please audiences on the big or the small screen. From the Hill Street Blues creator Steven Bochco's short-lived 2005 series Over There through to last year's flop movies, the US public has turned away. Burns and Reyes believe Generation Kill will be better received in the UK, despite a British journalist having berated Reyes and called him a violent bully at the previous evening's screening.

"Iraq won't take in the US for years," Burns says. "It took a good few years before we were able to have TV shows about Vietnam and even then we had to disguise it as Korea. And we're just doing the book with this show. We stop at the end of the invasion. This is the pristine war. What comes after is the mess we have now and I don't think we're ready to look at that. It'll take some years to process before we look at the real story.

"Right now the American corporate media's attitude to Iraq is - surge successful, that's taken care of, let's look at Britney. That's the way we are: we've been manipulated out of our democracy. America might claim to be a democracy but it's a managed democracy. I think it's different with you guys. You're more ready for this."

It is, perhaps, an overconfident statement. With the honourable exception of Gregory Burke's play Black Watch, there are few dramatic portrayals of the modern British soldier with as many subtle shades as Generation Kill. Although Burns and Reyes despair, they still come from the country that created The Daily Show, while we occasionally offer Bremner, Bird and Fortune. The US top ten bestseller lists bristle with political tomes from left and right, while ours offer footballers and abused children. They have their first black president; we have Old Etonians hovering in the wings. Generation Kill's anguished, exhilarated, rebellious and respectful marines demonstrate America's vast internal struggle, which hatred of George W Bush has prevented many on the left from understanding. If only for that reason, it's a show that should be seen.

"Generation Kill" is on FX from 25 January

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza