HBO rolls the dice on pricey 'Generation Kill'

Network battles U.S. audience's apathy toward Iraq war

July 06, 2008|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun television critic

America may be very much at war, but in the nation's pop culture trenches, telling stories about Iraq is a losing battle.

That truth has become increasingly clear as the same American majority that supported the start of the war in 2003 has come to consistently tune out feature films, TV series, books and nightly news accounts about the conflict today.

In July 2005, cable channel FX introduced producer Steven Bochco's Over There, the first TV drama to air concurrently with a war in which it was set.

Despite much advance praise, the series about a platoon of Army soldiers fighting in Iraq bombed in the ratings. It was canceled after just 13 episodes.

In the past two years, there has been a steady stream of theatrical films, some by such acclaimed directors as Brian De Palma and Kimberly Peirce, that have all flopped at the box office. They include Redacted, No End in Sight , In the Valley of Elah and Stop -Loss.

As HBO prepares for a July 13 launch of the most expensive TV production yet on the Iraq war, Generation Kill - a seven-part, $55 million miniseries about a battalion of young Marines in the lead of America's invasion force - analysts wonder about the cable channel's big gamble and whether any film or TV series can penetrate America's pop culture aversion to the war.

And though a debate over the war is still part of the presidential campaign, experts question how it is that so many who wanted the nation to invade Iraq now seem to be going out of their way to avoid bearing any on-screen witness to the results.

"I think most of America has kind of become numb to it," Eric Kocher, a senior military adviser for the HBO miniseries, says of the conflict in Iraq.

"I mean it's the same thing: Where are all the yellow flags on the cars, you know? You saw them big in the beginning of the war, but with America's attention deficit disorder, they lost interest in it now, and they don't want to see it anymore," says Kocher.

He was one of the Marines depicted in Evan Wright's Rolling Stone articles and book of the same title, on which the cable channel's miniseries adapted by Baltimore's Ed Burns and David Simon is based.

Philip Seib, editor of the journal Media, Conflict and War, uses the term "Iraq fatigue" to describe the mood of the American public when it comes to Iraq.

"You can see it in the political polling, with people saying that the economy is the big issue and they are not interested in the war," says Seib, a University of Southern California professor of journalism and public policy.

"Except for those with family or friends in the war, it just seems so remote, pointless and maybe endless, that they have tuned it out. Also, people don't think they can have much of an effect on things when it comes to this war, and that's most unfortunate."

If Americans were avoiding only dramatized film and TV versions of the war like Over There and Stop-Loss, that would be one thing, analysts say.

But more troubling is the fact that the public's aversion has spread to news accounts and journalistic books about the war as well - with publishers and network executives taking note.

Kimberly Dozier, the Peabody Award-winning CBS News correspondent who was seriously wounded by a bomb blast in 2006 while covering the war, says she had a difficult time finding a publisher for a book about her injuries and road to recovery, even though her near-fatal attack in Baghdad was front-page news around the world.

The reason she almost didn't find a publisher is that "books on Iraq don't sell," Dozier says, recalling what editors told her when she was shopping the book and informed them that it would have a strong focus on Iraq.

"But I had to admit that when we put Iraq on TV, people are changing the channel. ... Every chance we get, it seems like we turn away from Iraq."

(Dozier did eventually find a publisher in Meredith Books of Des Moines, Iowa. Her powerful and widely praised narrative of injury and recovery, Breathing the Fire, was published May 13. At the end of last week, it ranked 21,748 at There were no books about Iraq in Amazon's Top 100.)

Most disturbing to some critics is the sharp cutback in network TV news coverage of the war during the past six months.

Through the third week of June (just under half a year), the evening newscasts on NBC, ABC and CBS had combined for 181 weekday minutes of Iraq coverage. That's precipitously down from 1,157 minutes shown during 2007, according to data from Andrew Tyndall, a TV analyst who monitors network news.

"One reason the public is tuning out Iraq is that the news media, for the most part, are tuning out," says USC's Seib. "Without consistent reminders about Iraq from news organizations, the topic slides down the issues agenda."

Dozier, now based in Washington, thinks the public has tuned out the war in part because it is confused.

First, it was covered as a victory, then a debacle, and now there are conflicting analyses as to whether the surge and rebuilding efforts are working.

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