"War Machine" reveals the mentality behind America's longest war — and the maddest of them all

Brad Pitt's devastating caricature of Gen. Stanley McChrystal anchors a dense critique of our Afghan catastrophe

Published July 9, 2017 10:00AM (EDT)

Brad Pitt in "War Machine"; Medics carrying a wounded US soldier to Kandahar Hospital Role, August 23, 2011.   (Netflix/Getty/Johannes Eisele/Salon)
Brad Pitt in "War Machine"; Medics carrying a wounded US soldier to Kandahar Hospital Role, August 23, 2011. (Netflix/Getty/Johannes Eisele/Salon)

When asked by a U.S. Special Forces captain to adopt local defense during a shura, the village elder responded sharply. The elder wanted to know what the U.S. military had against the Taliban. The elder informed the captain that "we are all Taliban" and taking up arms against his brothers was out of the question. He further stated that his area was quiet and safe before the U.S. military established its outpost near his home; now IEDs could be found on the roads and firefights were frequent. The elder then urged the American officer to take his men and go away if he really wanted to bring peace to the area. It was clear that the VSO [Village Stability Operations] would not be established in this area in the near future, nor would it likely ever.
— Hy Rothstein, “Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War” (2012)

The greatest war movies are absolute indictments of the very idea of war. War does not make sense, at any level, in any context. War is madness, it is organized killing, it is humanity’s purest expression of evil: murder carried to the heartless, mechanistic level. The best war movies — landmarks such as Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” (1985) or Kon Ichikawa’s “Fires on the Plain” (1959) — give us the purest looks, short of participating in war itself, at the hell that is war. They speak a language that is many leagues past nihilism, because war, no matter how idealistic the rhetoric couching it, deserves no less a treatment.

One might engage in a fruitless discussion of which war has been madder than another, but in the annals of war it would be difficult to find another as senseless and counterproductive as the one America has long pursued in Afghanistan. In 2011, it earned the honorific “America’s longest war,” displacing Vietnam, perhaps the craziest war we’d engaged in before this one.

To invade a mountainous, tribal, premodern country, rightly known as the “graveyard of empires” (though American military strategists have been at pains to dispute that historical reality for more than 16 years now) in order to exact collective retribution for a terror attack of overdetermined provenance, was madness itself. But to then, over the course of all these years, try to turn Afghanistan into a laboratory for every questionable doctrinal fancy — from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency (COIN) to nation-building to imposing centralized government upon a tribal society historically resistant to such imposition — was to compound the delusion many times over.

We are still, in 2017 under President Donald Trump, with a new mini-surge of 5,000 soldiers being contemplated, trying to “win” the war in Afghanistan. This is certainly true in David Michôd's film “War Machine,” with Gen. Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt), standing in for real-life U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan who led the charge for a surge and for a shift in counterinsurgency strategy in 2009-2010 at the onset of the Obama administration. It is McMahon who, throughout this movie, refuses to accept that anything short of “victory” can be a desirable outcome for the military exercise in that country.

Under a constantly changing series of commanders in Afghanistan, that language of “victory” has been code for a whole arsenal of discredited social science expertise that insists on remolding recalcitrant societies in the image capitalism desires for them. This is the new science of empire, translating into freshly weaponized national military and police forces, as has been true of the effort in Afghanistan, remaking them as protectors of property and “human rights” abstracted from all notions of history and context. Is it any wonder then, that the efforts of all this social science theorizing notwithstanding, Afghanistan has turned into one of the world’s most corrupt governments?

So corrupt, in fact, that the Taliban regime (which set its own records for barbarity in the time it ruled, from 1996-2001) seems attractive by comparison, and has predictably been making a slow but certain comeback, going all the way back to the aftermath of the abbreviated military campaign in the fall of 2001. We may not like to think of ourselves as barbaric — in fact, “War Machine” is a persistent deconstruction of all the ways we like to fool ourselves that we’re not — but the last time the Taliban seemed like an attractive entity was in the wake of the bloodbath that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, when war seemingly became an end in itself, just as has seemed to be the case during our own counterinsurgency and nation-building venture.

“War Machine” is not particularly interested in detailing all this history, but focuses rather on sharpening awareness of the current bedlam by delving into the character of one individual, McMahon, and how he embodies a certain line of thinking that keeps getting us in the same sort of trouble, because it emanates from the same structural formations of empire.

It seems to me that the best explanation of what we’ve been up to in Afghanistan since 9/11 is simply to secure a primitive arena (the poorest country on earth where we can give full scope to our imperial fantasies) as a staging ground for social science articulation, as a venue for the military to project various forms of discipline, since any imperial military needs such a locale where it can pretend that it is working with a tabula rasa. Of course, the military cannot engage in war with a country that has an actual functioning government along with all its modern apparatuses, so in that sense, there could not have been a better playground than Afghanistan.

And nobody enjoyed this playground more than Stanley McChrystal. To understand “War Machine” we must know the context to Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings’ notorious article, “The Runaway General” (June 22, 2010), which led to McChrystal’s dismissal by President Obama — allegedly because the general and his staff had been “shit-talking” the administration for being clueless about Afghanistan. (Hastings went on to write “The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan,” the book that is the foundation for the movie, and then died in a mysterious car crash in 2013.)

Even today McChrystal presents his major error as having not been careful enough in managing the media — meaning Hastings in particular — but he knew exactly what game he was playing, putting a new administration under public pressure to escalate the war in Afghanistan by leaking to the press in 2009 his initial assessment calling for a surge and a different “population-centric” strategy than one focused narrowly on counterterrorism. So he got what he wanted, including, as the movie shows, an allied surge from NATO partners, but then he had to pay the price when he seemed to be getting too big for his shoes. McMahon’s character never changes, as “War Machine” amply illustrates, and as is true of McChrystal from his own ongoing presentations on “leadership” during his premature retirement.

There are numerous occasions in “War Machine” where we feel that the general — representing the mentality of our military machine as a whole — might come to a better, more humane, more realistic understanding of the nature and purposes of war (or shall we say peace), but that never happens.

Soldiers in the field — such as the Marine corporal played brilliantly by Lakeith Stanfield — question the general about war strategy, especially the new rules advocating caution toward minimizing civilian casualties, going by the appellation “courageous restraint.” The soldiers openly wonder — in an environment where of course it is all but impossible to distinguish between a so-called “insurgent’ and a regular civilian, between the “extremist” Taliban and the moderates — how they can defend themselves, and more importantly, what the war is all about.

The general is admonished by the American ambassador — who happened at the time to be Karl W. Eikenberry — that making a quick exit is the only thing that makes sense, advice he’s not willing to listen to; anything short of a “win,” on his terms of defeating the insurgency and stabilizing the country, is unacceptable. On McMahon's European tour, a German politician (Tilda Swinton) questions if his unrelenting goal, to pacify the country, is not rooted in self-delusion.

Finally, and most poignantly toward the end, on one of his missions to the villages in the never-ending venture to “win hearts and minds,” a tribal chief listens to McMahon/McChrystal’s spiel about providing stability, jobs, infrastructure, local policing, and justice and order, and says heartbreakingly, through a translator, “So please, leave now. Please.” The village consensus suggests that the longer the Americans stay, the worse the situation will be when they do eventually leave, since the Afghans will be left to deal with the mess, as they had to do after the Soviet exit.

At that instant, the general pauses, but just barely, still unable to admit the wrongness of the pacification and stabilization strategy (or any strategy involving Americans trying to reshape the country in a particular image of their own making). And so we move on from that sad moment with the general repeating his talking points about the Americans being there for the Afghans’ own good and with their best interests at heart.

“War Machine” starts off awkwardly, with an irritating voiceover narration that introduces McMahon’s devoted staff — including Anthony Michael Hall dementedly playing a version of Gen. Michael Flynn — as they take over the logistics of the Afghanistan theater (involving ISAF, or the International Security Assistance Forces, and motley Afghan security efforts). These introductions to the general’s staff seem out of proportion to the actual role these individuals will go on to play in the movie. The first half of the movie, as the general gets the lay of the land, seems almost beside the point, yet glimpses in the second half take the movie toward the kind of transcendent effect that characterizes the exemplary war movies I mentioned at the start.

We do at last kick into a different gear, as the irksome voiceover is mostly done away with, and as we encounter an illuminating scene halfway through the movie at a sumptuous European official dinner, when the general is seeking help from NATO during his publicity tour. This is in Paris no less, with all the ostentation that we associate with grand diplomacy in earlier times when it was Europe that was leading the charge with empire. Those familiar with the Rolling Stone article will know that the forced layover in Europe (because of a volcanic eruption in Iceland), the enforced partying (in which the general is a reluctant participant), and the behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Europeans will all become fodder for the “incriminating” article.

When one reads Hastings' article now, exactly seven years after the fact — and knowing all that has transpired in the interim (the surge of 30,000 American and 10,000 NATO troops, which did come about, just as McChrystal envisioned it, the escalation of counterinsurgency operations following the surge, the gradual disengagement and withdrawal of troops and the turnover to Afghan military and police forces, and the equally expected return of the Taliban, who by some accounts hold up to 40 percent of the territory now, particularly in their traditional eastern and southern strongholds) — one fails to see what was so irksome to the bureaucrats in the capital about that piece of reportage.

It seemed to offer the mildest of criticisms about the war effort, given how insane the shifting rationalizations had been from 2001 to 2010 (and of course in the period since then), but in the ensuing media firestorm it wasn’t so much the substance of that criticism, which was perfectly valid, but the general’s criticism of the Obama administration that became the central point of discussion.

“War Machine” has not received favorable reviews from American critics. I can’t help but think of another big-money Netflix production — “Marco Polo,” whose first season was said to have cost $90 million (and which was, sadly, not renewed after two seasons), whereas “War Machine” reportedly cost $60 million — which came in for similar criticism, and perhaps for somewhat parallel reasons.

Both “Marco Polo” and “War Machine” seem to have not so much an American but a global audience in mind, and both overturn conventional narratives of empire; in the case of “Marco Polo,” the movie rightly put the Mongols at the center of the first truly modern globalization movement. A solid historical case can be made that the Mongol ascension changed world history, because it brought the peoples of the world closer together, more than any single event before or since, and that it was a central the factor behind the rise of the modern world in all its manifestations, from religious reformation to scientific progress. Rather than thinking of the Mongols as barbarians lacking culture, as is the reductionist thinking in the West, the Mongols are rightly seen as transmitters and disseminators of culture on a global scale.

In dealing with the present state of the Afghans, we might say that this film has identified the obverse Central Asian locale, this one left behind by globalization; and when the American invaders try to impose globalization on the Afghans, the effort is doomed to failure. Whereas the Mongol rulers were supremely flexible in their dealings with all of Asia, their modern counterparts, the American commanders in the field, are singularly beholden to abstraction.

Much of the criticism of “War Machine” has centered on Brad Pitt’s caricature of McChrystal. But McChrystal is difficult if not impossible to satirize, because he has never done anything but operate strictly from within the paradigm for the special forces commander he has built for himself. He can never step outside that self-referential frame, so to expect Pitt to do anything else would be untrue to the reality we can see for ourselves.

Moreover, as was true of Hastings the reporter, it is also true of Michôd the filmmaker that McChrystal (and how distant, after all, have the numerous other Afghan theater commanders been from his style?), in his paradigmatic adherence to doctrine, serves as the ideal counterpoint to the messiness of the human reality the movie shows us, particularly the confusion dominating the hapless soldiers.

We don’t see too much of the Afghans, until the climactic battle scene (an abbreviated rendition of the famous battle of Marjah, or Operation Moshtarak, the linchpin upon which McChrystal based the retaking of Helmand province from the Taliban, an event that has been depicted more poignantly in the HBO movie “The Battle for Marjah”), where the expected civilian casualties occur, to much grief among the soldiers involved, and prompting a condolence visit by McMahon. That segment, standing magnificently alone in its depiction of war’s brutality, is in the great tradition of Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” or the other movies I mentioned, and it feels all the more powerful for being such a short glimpse.

“War Machine,” in fact, is an integral companion piece to the aforementioned British production released by HBO five years ago, with the makers of “The Battle for Marjah” embedded with Bravo Company of the First Battalion, Sixth Marines, during their effort to hold a zone in Marjah, whose tragic duration and aftermath are presented with the utmost pathos; everything I’ve said about the futility of war is captured in the disillusioning experiences of Bravo Company, though the rhetoric, as with McChrystal/McMahon and the most recent U.S. counterinsurgency manuals, remains unsullied. As Capt. Ryan Sparks of Bravo Company says without self-consciousness at the beginning of “The Battle for Marjah”: “I’m part of a machine that always wins. There’s no worse enemy than the United States Marines. We’re masters of controlled chaos and violence.”

Not surprisingly, the single most touching scene in “War Machine” is that of the Marine whose companions are shot by snipers at Marjah (all of this closely echoes the hourlong treatment in “The Battle for Marjah”) and who thereafter rushes into the enemy stronghold intent on seeking revenge; he does succeed in killing his targets, as well as inflict civilian casualties, but the real death — with hallucinatory music accompanying his blind sortie — is that of the Marines as any sort of rational entity, of the tradition of empowered, humane, defensive soldiery, if that ever existed in the first place. The compressed battle sequence alone is worth the price of watching “War Machine,” and it stays with the viewer as a pure negation of every word of discourse we have heard from foreign policy and military experts to justify this war.

There is the one Afghan, Badi Basim (Aymen Hamdouchi), whom General McMahon chooses for company, serving almost as a mascot, as he speaks hardly any words and hangs around as an afterthought, an insult to the vast subjugated Afghan population, singled out as he is for approval for being a trusted servant of the viceroy. When we do eventually encounter Afghans, much to the credit of “War Machine,” they are depicted as being as determined in their mindset, as desirous of preserving their traditional ways of living, as is McChrystal in his pursuit of abstract modernization.  

By way of the hyper-masculine McChrystal then — almost a self-caricature of what a field commander like him is supposed to say and act — the movie satirizes the absurdity of the underlying doctrine. At exactly the same moment as McChrystal’s peak of power in Afghanistan, soon after President Obama had given in to those who desired a surge (overruling Vice President Joe Biden’s skepticism toward such a move, and his wish to see the U.S. role reduced to minimalist counterterrorism), a furious debate raged in American military and foreign policy circles, in the years from 2009-2011, as to what to do about Afghanistan, the “good war” that had gone on too long.

In all these debates, under the auspices of organizations such as the Brookings Institution or the Council on Foreign Relations, it seems that the participants — many of whom were diplomatic or battlefield veterans of the Afghan war — were determined to believe that America had it in its power to rewrite the rules of war. Ignoring the tragic and quite parallel experiences of Britain in the Boer War, France in Algeria, and our own past experience in Vietnam, and ignoring also Afghanistan’s own peculiar circumstances which brought Britain much grief in three different iterations of the Anglo-Afghan War and which brought about the concluding act that shattered what remained of the tottering Soviet empire in the 1980s, American analysts believed almost to a voice, and still do, that “victory” was still possible: Hence the McChrystal incarnation, after the Iraq surge was deemed to have caused victory in that arena a few years earlier.

Many factors specific to Afghanistan create a highly ironic (not to mention volatile) situation, which is made worse by any form of intervention — though no liberal would ever admit this. If so-called terrorists (who are they? Extremist Taliban? Moderate Taliban? Only al-Qaida? Any Afghan who decides to join forces with the numerous groups fostered under our own auspices during the CIA and ISI-engineered proxy war of the 1980s, from the current manifestations of the Haqqani network to Hezb-e-Islami?) are pushed out of Afghanistan, they can seek “sanctuary” or “safe haven” in Pakistan — or Yemen or East Africa or Central Asia or anywhere else. Pakistan wants some form of Taliban-like rule in Afghanistan, to maintain a balance of power against India, which has its own interests in Afghanistan, that being to destabilize Pakistan to the extent possible.

Afghans, partly because of the geography of the country, have always preferred decentralized, fragmented, local government, but our entire doctrine of counterinsurgency is dependent on creating centralized forces of control, such as a national parliament, the Afghan National Army (ANA) and internationally-trained police. We can only fight the war if poppy production continues, hoping that “our side” benefits, whereas the puritan Taliban too are dependent, to a great extent, on precisely the same form of revenue. We seek to build infrastructure to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, in an abstract exercise by the empire in its most far-flung territory, not knowing whose hands the infrastructure will eventually fall into — or if it will be destroyed in short order, after having been a conduit for untold amounts of corruption among Afghan warlords patronized by former President Hamid Karzai and no doubt any future Afghan leader who ascends due to our blessing.

As Gen. McChrystal admitted in reality, and as Gen. McMahon acknowledges in “War Machine,” each insurgent who is killed generates 10 others. That’s certainly one problem with so-called counterinsurgency, but more important is how to tell who is an insurgent. The voiceover in the movie tells us in a world-weary tone that what we call an insurgent is someone whose country we have taken over and who wants then to fight the invaders. A soldier similarly asks McMahon how to tell an insurgent from a civilian, as if there were an actual answer.

The concept of preventing safe havens or sanctuaries, the foundation for the Afghan war, is essentially nonsensical, as “War Machine,” and before it “The Battle for Marjah,” clearly show. This, essentially, has been the logic of our war since shortly after the capture of Kabul in late 2001: We must beat the “insurgents,” but not so much as to turn the population against us, and when we have beat them enough, we might negotiate with them — but not before, and only with those who have reformed or are willing to work with us. Until then, we must fight and fight, to clear, secure, hold and rebuild, playing a numbers game (essentially similar to the “body count” logic of Vietnam, notwithstanding the protestations of reformist counterinsurgency theorists such as McChrystal), isolating different parts of the population from each other, choosing favorites, bestowing favors, all of it ending in a resplendent national government.

Though this movie suffers from the flaw of not being nihilist enough (but what would be the appropriate level of nihilism for a war as mindless as Afghanistan?), it is a provocative introduction to the deadly morass that is the Afghan war today — by far America's longest war, with no real end yet in sight. “War Machine” might well have chosen to start almost at the point where it ends, skipping the introduction to the general’s staff and much of the earlier setup, so that the kind of repetitive senselessness that forces skepticism toward war in general would have had more of a chance to flourish. The movie does provide brief solitary glimpses into matters that have gone on so long that their endless iteration, with each change in command, is numbing. But more of this would have created a greater hallucinatory quality about the impenetrability of the reality on the ground contrasted to the insistent rhetoric among diplomats and warriors that victory is within sight.

When McMahon seeks the rubber-stamp of President Karzai (played with wonderful cynicism by Ben Kingsley) for his signature offensive in southern Afghanistan (to clear, hold and build, as counterinsurgency doctrine has it), the president is unavailable on the phone; the general visits the president in his magnificent holdout (as McChrystal did in real life), where he is sleeping off a cold and watching fatuous TV, as he receives the general and gives his sign-off, knowing it means nothing. The present Afghan corruption is caused by a form of helplessness against the abstract maneuverings of empire, so Karzai’s state of helplessness in this scene is telling. The country has been awash with a level of cash infusion — not to mention the overall cost of around $100 billion for so-called aid and reconstruction and other efforts — so great that it was bound to empower the warlords, in this glorious experiment of late empire gone haywire.

If one looks at prominent books on Afghanistan being published around the time of McChrystal’s surge, very few dissenters can be identified — Andrew Bacevich, for one, comes to mind — and not particularly radical ones at that. Most of them were worried about the practical difficulties of imposing the kind of solution the American establishment still holds dear, and most of them adhered to the widespread consensus that Afghanistan must not be lost because it would a) create a domino effect whereby other terrorist or jihadi groups or simply renegade countries would be emboldened to fight us; b) enable the type of sanctuary or safe haven that led to 9/11 being instigated from that part of the world in the first place; and c) constitute a debilitating blow to our image and reputation in the world, since we would be leaving the Afghans in the lurch after having promised to stay the course.

Michael O’Hanlon, Joseph J. Collins, Frederick W. Kagan, Edward N. Luttwak, Marc Grossman, Gen. John R. Allen and numerous others iterated then, and continue to do so now, some version of this narrative of the unacceptability of loss in Afghanistan. But what really happened is that we lost the moment we decided to invade a sovereign country to punish what we decided was an act of terrorism for which we would hold an entire nation responsible, and then sought to remake that country in a particular image that can only be called a vainglorious exercise in empire-building.

It’s that narrative of loss, glimpsed in sorrowful fragments, that constitutes the power of “War Machine,” always contesting the stream of unchanging words and actions flowing out of the figure of Glen McMahon and/or Stanley McChrystal, empire builder par excellence.

By Anis Shivani