‘People’ vs. ‘Bad Guys’

Watching a rerun of the HBO miniseries Generation Kill right now. Though vivid and compelling in its portrayal of an elite U.S. Marine Corps unit that fought in the 2003 invasion of Iraq as well as surprisingly loyal to its source material–in this case, an outstanding 2004 book of the same name by Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright–the series does contain some striking differences. One of them, though tiny at first glance, is gnawing at me.

The scene takes place a little more than halfway through the series, when Lieutenant Nathaniel Fick is briefing some of his men on an upcoming mission. “The bad news is, we won’t get much sleep tonight,” Fick says in the HBO series. “The good news is, we get to kill bad guys.” Since I had just turned on the TV when that scene aired, I pulled my copy of Wright’s book off the shelf to find the scene and figure out where they were. I found the dialogue right away, but was surprised to see that Fick actually told his men that the good news was that his men would get to kill “people,” not “bad guys.”
This is not a small distinction (though given the number of civilians killed by U.S. personnel during the war, Fick’s actual words were morbidly prescient), but I know exactly why HBO made the change. In 2005, Fick–a thoughtful and intelligent Dartmouth grad then studying at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government–wrote his own outstanding memoir. In that book, Fick says Wright’s “kill people” quotation caused considerable consternation on the part of grad school admissions people.
When asked to explain why he pumped up his Marines by saying they were about to “kill people,” Fick said he could not, but refused to back down from the quote. That he ultimately made it into grad school would seem to say fears of Fick turning into some clock tower sniper ultimately didn’t amount to much, but the HBO rewrite actually reinforces the admissions officer’s squeamishness and does everyone a disservice. Fick, an honest and thoughtful man ultimately wracked by guilt over the number of civilians his troops were accidentally killing, is also a Marine thoroughly steeped in the Marine Corps “kill” mentality.
Maybe it’s just the journalist in me, but I don’t see how we can learn about war by simplifying a complex man and changing words he refuses to deny.
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