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Baltimore to Baghdad

The team from 'The Wire' takes on the Iraq war

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / July 6, 2008

When HBO sent along the book "Generation Kill," Ed Burns recalls, he and David Simon - his producing partner from "The Wire" - knew they had found their next project: another series that would be as challenging for viewers as it would be for producers.

This detailed account of the first days of the Iraq war shared many of the elements Burns and Simon had used in five seasons of "The Wire," a sprawling HBO drama about crime, corruption, and politics in Baltimore. Based on the Rolling Stone pieces Evan Wright filed as an embedded reporter, "Generation Kill" had a web of vivid characters and a complex vernacular. It dug deeply into a world that was far from that most HBO viewers experience.

And viewing it would require the sort of attention that devotees of "The Wire" were accustomed to paying.

"It's up to the audience to put in the work if they want to see these wonderful worlds," Burns said by telephone from his home in West Virginia. "And it can be a lot of work."

The difference is that "Generation Kill," the seven-part miniseries that premieres on HBO next Sunday, is nonfiction - the story of the Marines of the First Recon Battalion, who were among the first Americans to invade Iraq. For the most part, names in the book and series haven't been changed. One sergeant. Rudy Reyes, even plays himself.

And when he co-wrote the screenplay with Simon and Wright, Burns said, he felt pressure to create a world authentic enough to satisfy those real Marines.

"The obligation of the storytellers is to write for the characters," Burns said. "So that when the cop and the longshoreman or the addict or the Marine sees it, if they can authenticate it, then you've done your job."

Some of that authentication fell to Sergeant Eric Kocher, who was present for events depicted in the film and served as the series' military adviser. (He is played onscreen by Owain Yeoman, and has a small acting role, as well.)

Kocher said the initial script felt right, with a few small exceptions, largely having to do with dialect.

"It was actually mostly radio traffic," he said by phone from Nashville. "Marines, particularly Recon, have got a very specific way that we speak on the radio." It's a language of nicknames piled on nicknames: The men called one of their fellow Marines "Encino Man," but referred to him on the radio as "Echo Mike."

And while a handful of the actors had military experience - Jon Huertas served in an Air Force para rescue unit, for instance, and Alexander Skarsgard was a Swedish Marine - Kocher trained them to behave like real US Marines.

"The guys with the military experience, I think they knew just enough to be dangerous," Kocher said. "We had to re-teach them the way we do stuff in reconnaissance. We also had to teach them our heritage: the verbiage, the posture, the way we carry ourselves."

Kocher ran a six-day boot camp for the actors in a remote part of Namibia, putting them through 14-and 20-hour days and authentic military exercises. They took part in physical tests, practiced shooting blanks, and conducted a Humvee raid on an abandoned village.

"They actually did surprisingly well," Kocher said. "They weren't being babied through it. I expected them to turn back and run."

"They actually did surprisingly well," Kocher said. "They weren't being babied through it. I expected them to turn back and run."

Huertas, who plays Sergeant Antonio Espera in the series, said he was struck by the scant resources Marines received, compared to the special operations units he served with in the Air Force. But the basic purpose of training was the same, he said: to prepare your mind for unrelenting physical demands.

"You push your body past its physical limit to see if your mind will overcome," he said. "They don't care if your body fails. If your mind is starting to tell you to keep going, you keep going."

And to all of the actors, Burns said, Kocher was a striking mentor.

"These guys followed him around like puppy dogs," Burns said. "It was amazing, the power just of who he is. At the time, Eric weighed about 245 pounds, and 150 of it was his chest and his arms."

Kocher was accustomed to authority; at the time the Iraq War began, he had just turned 23. "I was a kid running a five-man team making huge decisions that would shape the entire war," he said.

And he said he's glad the series - as well as the book - centers on those young men and big choices. When the book came out, "I thought, every story you see, they always focus on the officers and the officers carry the men," Kocher said. "That's not the way it usually goes. You have these great corporals, great lance corporals, great 22-year-olds who are the backbone of what goes on over there."

Burns said he hopes viewers come away with the same appreciation.

"I hope they take the same thing they took from 'The Wire': a privileged look into a culture that you really don't have access to," Burns said. "We poured into the war without a whole lot of thought, and we committed these really great guys to do battle. So you should know who these guys are."

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to boston.com/viewerdiscretion

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