‘War Machine’ Is a Rorschach Test
Bored schoolchildren will one day watch this in high school
This post contains spoilers for both War Machine and America’s war in Afghanistan.
Halfway through Netflix’s War Machine, Stanley McChrystal stand-in Glenn McMahon sits on a fancy jet waiting to meet with U.S. Pres. Barack Obama. State Department asshole Pat McKinnon plops down in a chair across from him and asks, “How do you think this ends?”
He’s talking about America’s war in Afghanistan, and he’s asking about the big picture. “Simple,” McMahon says. “We either win it or we lose it.”
“Yeah, I dunno. I think I’m gonna call bullshit on that Glenn,” McKinnon says. “All the winning we were ever gonna do we did in the first six months. Since then we’ve just been making a mess and that’s all it was ever gonna be. You’re not here to win. You’re here to clean up the mess.”
That exchange is War Machine in a nutshell. McMahon is a smart and capable general at war with more than just an insurgency. At every turn, he’s beset by a corrupt and lazy Afghan government, unsupportive American politicians and a disillusioned military.
It’s a great movie that hits close to home. Netflix billed the movie as a comedy, but audiences will only laugh to keep from crying. For the people who were there, War Machine will feel eerily close to the truth. Viewers who haven’t paid attention to Afghanistan in a decade will shake their heads, turn to their friends and say, “really?”
What a viewer thinks about War Machine will say more about that viewer’s personal politics than it does about the movie. That, to me, is the mark of a clever film. The story starts in 2009. Obama is freshly elected and McMahon is the new general in charge of winning the war in Afghanistan. To that end, he wants a fresh round of troops for the conflict and a refresher course on counterinsurgency for everyone involved.
McMahon is an obvious roman à clef of McChrystal, and Brad Pitt’s turn as the embattled general is at the heart of many viewers distaste for the movie. From the conversations I’ve had and the social media posts I’ve seen, former and current service members who knew McChrystal feel like War Machine is a hatchet job. To many, this is a theatrical bit of character assassination.
I disagree. For context, no, I haven’t been to Afghanistan. I’ve known—and have interviewed— many people in both a personal and professional capacity who have been. I’ve also long followed the war with mixed dread and fascination and tracked the many ways in which the military and various contractors bilked U.S taxpayers for billions during reconstruction.
I think War Machine is a great film because it cuts to the core of the problems of the conflict. America’s leaders asked the world’s most powerful and capable military to win a war by winning hearts and minds. That’s not what the military is for, and so, it has failed at the task. It’s a cliffnotes version of how to fail at counterinsurgency.
Pitt’s McMahon is incredible. He nails McChrystal’s personality quirks, guttural voice and odd gait. The few vets I’ve talked with said they see the movie as painting a great man as a fool. In their estimation, War Machine turns a brilliant military mind into a buffoon incapable of seeing the forest for the trees.
I didn’t see that. War Machine humanizes a man many see as a hero who was betrayed by the culture and the U.S. government. Pitt is a little goofy, but then so is McChrystal. The movie paints McMahon as a dedicated soldier and fantastic leader. He commands loyalty from his troops, plays the politics of every situation well and has good ideas on how to fight the war.
This is the guy who overhauled Joint Special Operations Command, sleeps four hours a night and championed a new way of war in Iraq. His failing was not his hubris and lack of humility, as the narrator of War Machine says, but his belief that the American people and its politicians were actually interested in ending the war in Afghanistan.
War Machine takes pains to make McMahon a human. The scenes with his men, and the scenes with his wife, make the general a person rather than a legend.
People who come away disliking the treatment of McChrystal paid too much attention to the voice-over narration. War Machine’s narrator is Sean Cullen, a stand-in for Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings. The film is based on Hastings’ book and the article he wrote which ended McChrystal’s career.
In the film, Cullen comes off as a supreme jackass. He’s a know-it-all who acts too smart for the room—and he sees everyone around him as a fool. Not exactly the guy who should be lecturing the audience on hubris and humility.
It’s not a good look and his final take on McMahon is so off the mark that it destroys the impact of his other observations. It’s a weird feeling to so completely disagree with an omnipotent narrator’s assessment of a character he crafted. But there you go.
When he’s not talking about the general, Cullen is cutting and precise. “In the good old days wars were fought against conventional armies from nation states,” he says over images of World War II playing on a film reel.
“Guys in uniforms like Nazis and stuff. When, however, you’ve just invaded a place you shouldn’t have you just end up fighting against regular people in regular people clothes. These guys are called insurgents. Basically they’re just guys who picked up weapons ‘cuz … so would you if somebody invaded your country. Funnily enough, insurgencies are next to impossible to defeat.”
“And so if you want to go on pretending you can win you’re really left with no option but to try to convince the country you’ve invaded that you’re actually here to help. This is counterinsurgency. It’s a popularity contest. You’re trying to convince the people that they’re better off with you than they are with the insurgents.”
According to Hastings-Cullens and War Machine, counterinsurgency doesn’t work. Most of the time he’s right, especially if a democracy fights said counterinsurgency. When it comes to the politics and the minutia of Afghanistan, War Machine sings.
Like its thematic predecessor Dr. Strangelove, the movie takes a dramatic script and plays it for laughs. In the hands of a different director, this movie could easily be a drama or even a tragedy about a good soldier wronged by his government. The stakes are so high and the personalities so serious, it’s only the tone, the circumstances and the performances that make it a comedy—one that’s not always funny.