Ed Burns — former Baltimore homicide detective, Vietnam vet, and long-time writing partner with David Simon, both on the The Wire and on Generation Kill, spoke with the Phoenix about the new series. Here’s some of what he had to say.
GET YOUR WAR ON: The response Dave Simon (left) and Ed Burns (right) wanted from Iraqi vets was: “They got it.”
What kind of response have you gotten from the Marine Corps? Because this is definitely a warts-and-all portrayal of the Corps and its members.
First of all, we viewed for the Bravo 2 and Bravo 3 guys from First Recon [the two platoons focused on in the film]. They loved it; they thought it was their story. At Camp Pendleton [the Marine Corps base in Southern California], a lot of the enlisted officers were at first reluctant to get involved. Then, when they saw it, they gave us the thumbs-up. That was a big test. We did this with that audience in mind, just the way we did The Wire with cops and drug people in our mind as the audience.
Watching the film, I was repeatedly reminded that for a lot of people — including me — this is an utterly alien world. Is that something you were cognizant of, and if so, how did it affect the creative process?
Well, this is an opportunity to go into a world that you don’t have access to. In that sense it’s very much like The Wire. If you invest in this, you’ll see the elite of the young men who’ve been committed to war. And the opportunity to present this was a challenge that David [Simon] and I really enjoyed. We were writing to get those Marines to look at each other knowingly and say, “They got it.”
That’s all we can do. Then it’s up to the audience, as they come to it, to make their own assessments of what they’ve seen. In The Wire, you can decide these people are getting a bum rap and something should be done — or you can decide that these people are lazy and they deserve what they get. Evan Wright’s book [Generation Kill, on which the HBO series is based] can be read, I think, as a sort of anti-war book. But the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation gave it an award. It’s what you bring to it. Our job — if you’re going to invest in the series — is that we want it to be as close to reality as possible, so your investment isn’t cheated.
Did your thoughts on the Iraq War change at all the course of putting this series together?
Well, I was 100 percent against the war from the very beginning, without any doubt. I was in Vietnam. That was a bogus war. And I know that if you’re badly injured — and I wasn’t, I was fine — you never forget that foot coming down on the landmine. You never forget when the IED exploded your Humvee. And you will hope that your loss was for the right cause. But as time wears on, you’ll begin to realize that you were duped, and that makes that injury that much harder to bear.
These guys are all pumped now — but they’re young. There’s going to be a whole process they go through, just like the guys did after Vietnam, when the government starts cutting back veterans’-hospital money and stuff like that. When you go to the woods around Martinsburg, West Virginia [where Burns lives], they won’t be filled with guys who fought in Vietnam. They’ll have died, and their places will be taken by the guys from Iraqi Freedom.
I think the people responsible for getting us in the war should be tried, because that was a crime. They knew what they were doing, and we’re going to let them off the hook. This country, what we’ve done around the world has been quite ugly. But we’ve managed to drape it in democracy and loyalty and pat things like that. I don’t think Iraqis feel that patriotism, that loyalty, that democracy. There’s something wrong somewhere, because the anger is not there. And we need healthy doses of righteous anger. This is appalling.