Netflix “War Machine,” released on the 26th of May, provides a satirical view of the war in Afghanistan, counterinsurgency in general, and the follies and foibles of senior leadership both military and civilian. While it misses the mark in many regards, it does provide some insight into the Afghan conflict and the men that lead it.
The film’s protagonist is General Glen McMahon, played by Brad Pitt. McMahan is a thinly veiled portrayal of General Stanley McChrystal, who resigned from his position as leader of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after a damning profile that appeared in Rolling Stone.
General McChrystal’s tenure as ISAF Commander is best known for the importance he placed on preventing civilian casualties and a renewed focus on counterinsurgency and his constant battle with the civilian control of the military. McChrystal publicly stated that tens of thousands of troops were needed or Afghanistan would be lost, putting President Obama into a corner and forcing him to act. This move was criticized by many in the administration as insubordinate and attempting to circumvent civilian control over the military.
The film echoes many of these same woes as Brad Pitt’s General McMahon fights with government officials who all but keep him from doing his job which, as McMahon sees it, is to win the war in Afghanistan. His delivery as a de facto General McChrystal, however, is left wanting. Pitt’s McMahon, though intelligent, is an ego driven buffoon. He is fiercely loyal to his men, and they to him. He is portrayed as a soldier’s soldier with little patience for the political tomfoolery of Washington. He is depicted as a man with a singular idea and belief in self, a man who thinks sheer force of will determines success or victory in a complicated situation.
It is the same ham-fisted portrayal of military generals that Hollywood has recycled for years. They are ego driven, impervious to rational thinking, and lost in their legend. Whether this representation is accurate to General McChrystal depends on where you fall in your opinion of him. His detractors will find Pitt’s McMahon as a lock-stepped look on the disgraced general, whereas his supporters will view the portrayal as a mischaracterization of a military leader who legitimately cared for his troops and the mission.
But what of the other commentary in the film? “War Machine” makes a point to suggest that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable and counterinsurgency, as a whole, does not work. This characterization is not entirely unfair, especially given how the Obama administration approached the Afghan war.
Much of the United States’ doctrine on counterinsurgency is based on the works of David Galula, a French Army Officer whose counterinsurgency practices in Algeria helped shape the field of study for decades. The fundamental tipping point in counterinsurgency is the transition from occupying forces to host nation forces. This change is crucial, as it allows for the occupying power to slowly withdraw and for the nation’s own forces to take a larger share of the mission, eventually taking over the task entirely on their own.
As “War Machine” points out, it is hard to convince a country that you have invaded that you are there to help. This is particularly the case in Afghanistan, where part of the Afghan identity is to fight the occupier. Since the days of Alexander, the Great, Afghans have fought against outside forces who wished to occupy their country. This makes the transition to local forces even more crucial, but the matter is complicated when attempting to install an American-style democracy in a country that is still very tribal.
General McChrystal’s attempts to conduct counterinsurgency were hindered by an administration that just wanted the Afghanistan conflict to be over. His efforts to force President Obama’s hand, however, ultimately led to his removal as ISAF commander.
From a leadership and civil-military relationship standpoint, McChrystal crossed many lines in his dealings with the press and his Commander-in-Chief. It is a case where the stand he took was righteous, but not the manner in which he stood.
The same can be said of the film’s General McMahon. He means well and is a true believer in the cause and his abilities, but when taken to an extreme these qualities are a curse and not a blessing. For those that have seen the farcical side of military staff operations and decision making, “War Machine” provides a reflection of every cringeworthy moment a military staff officer has faced.
The film is forced and broad-brushed in much of its commentary. However, between caricatures of military leadership and American foreign policy, it offers teaching points on the nuance and complexity of the modern American way of war.