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2 TV shows give a different take on military life at home, in Iraq

Beginning tonight, TV viewers have the choice of watching two very different Iraq war dramas on Sundays.

Lifetime's hit “Army Wives” and HBO's new “Generation Kill” will likely have few fans in common, but neither series can be accused of a biased stance about the Iraq war.

By not taking political sides, both shows have potential to attract hawks or doves.

Both series are also based on nonfiction books, and that's where the similarities end.

“Army Wives” (at 10 p.m.) is a tear-jerking soap opera that honors the resilience of military families. It's well-meaning, but increasingly sappy. Soldiers are deployed and leave wives and children behind at the Army base to worry and struggle with family problems. Scenes of Iraq are mostly brief – sometimes, there's just one montage shot of soldiers standing by their Humvees, as an acoustic guitar is strummed on the soundtrack.

“They're trying not to delve into (the war) too much,” says fan Stephanie Smitherman of Chapel Hill. “When they do mention it, it's very much the patriotic aspect. Soldiers are doing what they're sent to do.”

‘Generation Kill'

On “Generation Kill,” the excellent seven-part miniseries that premieres at 9 tonight, the only women around are the one posing on the cover of a well-thumbed Hustler magazine, and the reporter's girlfriend (in a purloined picture that's passed around for unmentionable reasons by lonely Marines stationed in Kuwait).

There are no montages and no music, save for Marines singing recent pop, rock and rap hits. For other amusement, they one-up each other with creative racial and gay-baiting insults or vulgar standup comedy. Most of the dialogue is written just as real Marines said it in Iraq.

“They've assimilated into this sort of group conscience,” says actor James Ransone, 29, who portrays wisecracking, stimulant-scarfing, real-life Marine Cpl. Ray Person in the series. “Once you sort of do that within this fraternity, nothing is sacred. I think that's awesome, because that actually transcends class and race and economic backgrounds.”

Ray Person is the second role based on an actual person that Ransone has played for co-executive producers and writers David Simon and Ed Burns. His first was tweaked-out dock worker Ziggy Sobotka in season two of “The Wire,” their acclaimed HBO series set in crime-ridden Baltimore. (Ziggy was based on the late Pinkie Bannion, a legend on the Baltimore docks.)

“Generation Kill” was filmed last year with a huge cast (including real Marines from the book) in Namibia, South Africa, and Mozambique. The story is adapted from Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright's nonfiction best-seller, “Generation Kill,” which details what he saw and heard while embedded with the First Reconnaissance Battalion during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Wright is played by Lee Tergesen, who played crazed and abused prisoner Tobias Beecher in HBO's prison drama “Oz.”

The Recons are the elite of the Marines. Their long, rigorous training prepares them for stealth operations behind enemy lines. As reported in “Generation Kill,” all that training goes out the window as they are instead ordered to drive Humvees from the northern Kuwait border toward Baghdad, while fighting off attacks.

All the while, they're hindered by incompetence at the top and a lack of resources. Green fatigues are inexplicably issued for the desert mission. Much-needed batteries are in short supply, as well as armor for the Humvees. Along the way, the rules of engagement change, from not shooting at civilians at first to shooting at anyone seen moving around in areas deemed hostile.

Ratings and reflections

It's unlikely that “Generation Kill” will even come close to ratings for “Army Wives,” Based on “Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives,” Tania Biank's nonfiction book about life at Fort Bragg, “Army Wives” debuted in June 2007 to the biggest premiere ratings in Lifetime's 23-year history.

This year, its second-season premiere on June 8 broke more records for Lifetime, with 4.5 million total viewers – 3.3 million of them women over 18.

Simon hopes his new HBO show will shake people out of apathy toward the war.

“If they watch it, I think they'll be a little more reflective about what war is,” Simon recently told MSNBC's Chris Matthews on “Hardball.” “America's done a pretty good job of opting out of this war emotionally.”

To those who thought “Army Wives” had provided them with some insight, see “Generation Kill” and think some more.