Generation Kill – a study in hypermasculinity.

Oh that’s right, I don’t just talk about regular masculinities, I talk about hypermasculinities.

In the last week or so seven of my hours were spent watching  Generation Kill – a HBO produced 2008 miniseries,  from Ed Burns et al. It’s a 7 part miniseries that tells the story of a Marine Recon Units involvement in the invasion of Iraq. On a production level, it is superb, visually impressive, well shot, acted and written. 

What was of particular interest to me, and relevent to this blog, was the depiction of masculinity in Generation Kill.  I should also point out that I am not attempting to form any detailed or conclusive analysis of masculinity in the series. It is very dense and to do it justice requires more time and commitment than I can offer at the moment, so please read my thoughts as a few notes and broad impressions relating to the series as a whole.

Now, it might be obvious, but I’ll still say it – in terms of representation of masculine identity, The exclusively homosocial world of marines in  wartime is a pretty extreme example. An archetypal hypermasculine identity.  Hypermasculinity is term used to describe a masculine identity, that is in one or more ways, extreme; marines, pro-footballers, Tom of Finland are all good examples.

And from my “extensive” research (ie – reading comments on IMDB from Marines and other service personnel/veterans) it seems that Generation Kill is a reasonably accurate depiction of events, and more importantly for us, the culture and lifestyle of marines at war (I have no objective way of verifying this, and in some ways, there is no point – but to me, it certainly feels a lot more real than other war drama).  There is a LOT of misogyny, racism & homophobia, both casual and very explicit represented in the series. My thoughts about this are mixed. One one hand it is good to see a realistic representation of an oft valourised community, a counterpoint to common sanitized representations. On the other hand Generation Kill risks further glorifying a culture of hate, oppression & violence. This is something I think true of all representations of war, including anti-war texts; Anthony Swofford, the author of Jarhead noted how movies like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now where popular with Marines, and that their reading of those films was not necessarily one critical of war. Not much can be done about subjectivity, and if you ARE going to produce war dramas, I’d rather they were like this than say, something from Bruckheimer.

What I found particularly interesting and good about the depiction of masculinity in Generation Kill was the was it demonstrated the powerlessness, real or imagined at the core of hypermasculinity. These Marines, trained, physically and psychologically to be and believe in themselves as elite warriors, have a very limited realm in which to exercise any power. One notable scene shows some marines observing a hamlet for possible mortars, they radio in that there are only women and children in the village, only to see it blown up by artillery minutes later. In other instances the marines are shown as identifying genuine military threats, or obtaining legitimate intelligence, and are ordered not to act on it.  Their powerlessness is also demonstrated in a scene where they encounter some Iraqi farmers, naked – their clothes stolen by Iraqi soldiers. The naked Iraqis ask the  marines what the can do about it, and all they can do is give them some water and drive on. Their powerlessness is also represented on a more micro level, they are poorly equipped, for example their state of the art technology is useless without batteries. Seen in this context their aggressive masculine posturing is a veneer, a comforting and communal lie to make their lack of agency less galling.

Generation Kill also represented a few other things in notable ways; the standard trope in war dramas is for the soldiers to be traumatized or deeply affected by the act of killing, and many in Generation Kill where shown like this, especially one soldier who (perhaps not accidently?) shot some children. But refreshingly, for a representation of this type, several soldiers were shown as not only unaffected by their acts of violence, but revelled and relived their experiences, and sought more grotesque acts of violence, and treated the mutilated bodies of dead civilians and enemy soldiers as entertainment.  That Generation Kill shows a varied and complex range of reactions to sanctioned violence is a good thing, it challenges the traditional understanding of war time masculinity, and problematises the dominant understanding act during, and after war. It isn’t comfortable, but it (again) feels true.

Interestingly though, I noticed that Generation Kill did not depict or deal explicitly with rape or sexual violence. It formed a large  part of how the marines speak about women (and men) – but to my recollection no physical sexual violence is depicted. I am not sure why this is the case, as the show is not at all uncritical or glossing over the unsavoury – and the absence of this aspect of war surprised me.

Generation Kill is television, it is about war, and I’m sure a lot of people who watch it, will not do so critically, and enjoy it for the explosions, violence and tension. In this Generation Kill will not hugely promote a deeper understanding of masculine identity or gender relations.  But if someone is at all inclined to view Generation Kill critically, they will find a rich and nuanced representation of hypermasculinity, and one which, quite explicitly, expresses the powerlessness and anxiety under the muscles and bravura posturing, at times heartwarming, but for me at least, overwhelmingly sad.

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8 Comments on “Generation Kill – a study in hypermasculinity.”

  1. kristy Says:

    hola, great post ! I think that you would appreciate the book ‘Killing: Misadventures in Violence’ authored by Jeff Sparrow and published this year. Sparrow interviews numerous peeps involved in all forms of killing (young Australian veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, roo shooters, etc) and describes how many people who are involved in routinised/normalised killing become desensitised to it in the same way that doctors must become desensitised to sickness and death, but makes the point that, ultimately, what soldiers/roo shooters, etc end up thinking about in the moment preceding a kill is what their mates around them will think of them and whether or not they are adequately ‘manly’ in this most ‘hypermale’ of situations. Ok so I am paraphrasing. Sparrow went on a roo shoot himself and was shocked to discover that he was very quickly less concerned by the horrific nature of some kills than he was by the fact that he wasn’t performing well as a man needing to haul the carcasses up onto hanging hooks on the back of a truck. Interesting, no? The idea that in the end, killing comes down to camaraderie and fraternity amongst, predominantly, men.

    I also think that it would have been particularly controversial to have depicted rape on Gen Kill (that would have certainly made the show anti-war), even though we know that it happens such as with a number of instances with American female contractors being sexually abused in Iraq and is perhaps the logical endpoint of aggressive, competitive, dirty, misogynistic talk about women, sex and conquests and men being confined together without wives, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and civilian friends in an extreme situation where they face death one minute and are bored to death in barracks the next for months and months at a time. It encourages a certain recklessness, abandon and depravity, you imagine. And thereafter, are we doing enough to rehabilitate men (and women) post-institutionalisation in the extreme environs of combat, fear, adrenaline and violence..?

    LOVE THE BLOG. What a great idea.


    • Hi Kristy,

      I don’t think it could be doubted that the creators of Generation Kill inteded for it to be anti-war. There is verbal sexual assault depicted, of Iraqis and female support personnel, as well as strong misogyny based on partners “back home”

      I havn’t read the book the series was based on, (the account of the embedded journalist) – perhaps rape plays a role in that, or it’s absence is explained.

      Oh, and I agree with you on violence being about community & belonging in this sort context

  2. kristy Says:

    aaahh this is what you get for commenting on something (Gen Kill) before watching or reading it! Shall watch/read. And I wonder if men resent women for not going to war in the same numbers that they do? Does this account for misogyny amongst some male soldiers? i.e. the thought those that silly women aren’t out there risking their lives and limbs for freedom and country like us? I suppose that the idea that women are loathed because they are less physically capable is not new.

    Anyway. Thanks again for your post; it has made me want to seek this series out. I like that a depiction of war reveals that despite the posturing, soldiers are anxious and powerless as much as powerful, and the multiplicity and complexity of responses to war.

  3. Daran Says:

    I’ve not seen the program, and here only comment on your blog post.

    …The exclusively homosocial world of marines in wartime is a pretty extreme example…

    You do understand that homosociality in a military unit is, in the most literal sense possible, a matter of life and death for these men. Whether you live or you die depends upon whether you can trust the guy next to you.

    What I found particularly interesting and good about the depiction of masculinity in Generation Kill was the was it demonstrated the powerlessness, real or imagined at the core of hypermasculinity. These Marines, trained, physically and psychologically to be and believe in themselves as elite warriors, have a very limited realm in which to exercise any power.

    Do you not see a contradiction here between the common feminist refrain that men can stop war, and reality as described here?

    One notable scene shows some marines observing a hamlet for possible mortars, they radio in that there are only women and children in the village, only to see it blown up by artillery minutes later. In other instances the marines are shown as identifying genuine military threats, or obtaining legitimate intelligence, and are ordered not to act on it.

    Notice the assumption here that “women and children” are automatically not legitimate targets. Men, regardless of there actual role in a conflict, do not benefit from that assumption. My own research has shown that typically between about 70 and 90% of civilian casualties in modern war are adult males. (In Iraq, they are about 90%.) This gendered assumption is likely a significant contributor to the disparity.

    In reality, both women and children can be active participants in war. The division of the populace into “combatant” and “civilian” is a social construct which operates to legitimise the killing of men.


    • Thanks for posting Daran,

      Firstly I highly recommend you watch Generation Kill, it’s good TV.

      You do understand that homosociality in a military unit is, in the most literal sense possible, a matter of life and death for these men. Whether you live or you die depends upon whether you can trust the guy next to you.

      I don’t think it necessarily follows that the gender of the person next determines whether or not you can trust them.

      Do you not see a contradiction here between the common feminist refrain that men can stop war, and reality as described here?

      I think you miss my point, which is that these soldiers have a sense of identity, as men and as soldiers, which is based upon their ability to make substantive and meaningful change, (esp in regard to the “liberation” of Iraq). That is their reason for being in danger in Iraq. The realities as represented in GK are very difference, they are so hampered by conditions and more importantly, higher command, that they have little to know opportunity to make any decisions or actions that can benefit others. And in re to your broader point that “men can stop war” – I’d say that was a lazy simplification, but would agree that overwhelmingly, those with the power on a macro level to prevent state endorsed violence, are men – and I see no contradiction between that and the situation of those intimately involved with war being largely powerless.

      Notice the assumption here that “women and children” are automatically not legitimate targets. Men, regardless of there actual role in a conflict, do not benefit from that assumption.

      In relation to this point, It’s not an assumption that I made, (nor indeed does the TV show). Iraqi men, including conscripted soldiers, are frequently shown as illegitimate targets, and ‘victims’ of war (caused by US & Iraqi violence). And in the specific context I was quoting it is made explicitly clear that the women and children in question are not participants of war. Like I said, watch Generation Kill, I’d be interested to see what you thought of it.

  4. Daran Says:

    Firstly I highly recommend you watch Generation Kill, it’s good TV.

    I found only one episode available for (legitimate) streaming, which I have watched. I agree with your assessment of it

    You do understand that homosociality in a military unit is, in the most literal sense possible, a matter of life and death for these men. Whether you live or you die depends upon whether you can trust the guy next to you.

    I don’t think it necessarily follows that the gender of the person next determines whether or not you can trust them.

    My point wasn’t to suggest otherwise, but to account for the behaviour you described (and which is depicted.)

    Do you not see a contradiction here between the common feminist refrain that men can stop war, and reality as described here?

    I think you miss my point, which is that these soldiers have a sense of identity, as men and as soldiers, which is based upon their ability to make substantive and meaningful change, (esp in regard to the “liberation” of Iraq). That is their reason for being in danger in Iraq. The realities as represented in GK are very difference, they are so hampered by conditions and more importantly, higher command, that they have little to know opportunity to make any decisions or actions that can benefit others.

    I didn’t miss your point, I just chose to make another one.

    I didn’t see, in the episode I watched, any particular indication that their “sense of identity, as men and as soldiers, [was] based upon their ability to make substantive and meaningful change”. Sure they wanted to make substantive and meaningful change, but they were under no illusion that they could. I don’t see the “aggressive masculine posturing” as “a veneer, a comforting and communal lie to make their lack of agency less galling.”. I saw it more as continual mutual reinforcement that “I’m the guy you want beside you, when you’re in a hole. I’m the guy whose back you want to cover when I’m in trouble, because I’m the one who will be covering your back when you are.”

    And in re to your broader point that “men can stop war” – I’d say that was a lazy simplification, but would agree that overwhelmingly, those with the power on a macro level to prevent state endorsed violence, are men – and I see no contradiction between that and the situation of those intimately involved with war being largely powerless.

    Are you saying that the feminist claim that “men can stop war” is a lazy simplification, or that my point against the claim is a lazy simplification?

    I don’t agree that “men can stop war” expresses the idea that those “overwhelmingly, those with the power on a macro level to prevent state endorsed violence, are men”. Rather the statement attributes agency to prevent war to men as a class – half the world’s adult population. Agency that 99.9999 percent of them do not have.

    Notice the assumption here that “women and children” are automatically not legitimate targets. Men, regardless of there actual role in a conflict, do not benefit from that assumption.

    In relation to this point, It’s not an assumption that I made, (nor indeed does the TV show). Iraqi men, including conscripted soldiers, are frequently shown as illegitimate targets, and ‘victims’ of war (caused by US & Iraqi violence).

    Why do you put ‘victims’ in quotes?

    In any case my remark was that “women and children” are assumed automatically to be not legitimate targets. The negation of that is not “are assumed automatically to be legitimate targets” but “not automatically assumed to be not legitimate targets”.

    What you “assume” in your own mind isn’t something I can comment on. I merely respond to what you write.

    And in the specific context I was quoting it is made explicitly clear that the women and children in question are not participants of war.

    What was the relevance of the fact that they were “women and children”, given that they were not participants of war?

    The answer of course is “none”. Non-combatants should not be attacked regardless of their age and sex. So why say “women and children” rather than “non-combatant”? Because “women and children” says non-combatant more powerfully than does “non-combatant”. This is a socially constructed gender norm – a trope used by the (fictionalised) soldiers, but also by the film makers, and recapitulated uncritically here by you.

  5. Dane Says:

    Great post. I think you would really enjoy this article on hypermasculinity in ’80s movies.


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