Excerpts: How do military leaders persuade their soldiers to fight an insane war?
Here’s one way. The setting is a bitter outpost of the American war in Afghanistan. The years-long nightmare has no prospect of ending so long as American troops stay in a country that has a nearly unblemished record of grinding foreign armies to ashes. A bullish general is trying to generate a dose of enthusiasm in the hearts and minds of his unenthusiastic men. . . .
It comes from the just-released “War Machine,” which is one of the best war movies of the post-9/11 era, yet has been panned by movie critics who know everything about basic cable and nothing about basic training. While the movie is uneven in content and performances, it achieves greatness in the way it uses absurdity to assassinate the logic and reality of counterinsurgency warfare. . . .
There is one particular group of people who love the film, and we should pay more attention to them, because in the matter of war movies they are the experts who matter the most: soldiers. They now have more skin in the game than usual, after President Trump gave Secretary of Defense James Mattis a green light to send more soldiers into Afghanistan. Helene Cooper, a military correspondent for The New York Times, noted in a podcast the other day that “everybody at the Pentagon is talking about” the movie, and she added, “the guys who you think would be offended by it, love it.” Retired Gen. David Barno wrote with co-author Nora Bensahel that it “should be must-see TV for our current generals and all those who aspire to wear stars.” . . .
. . stars Brad Pitt as a thinly-veiled version of Stanley McChrystal, the gung-ho general who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan until he was fired when a Rolling Stone journalist wrote a revealing article about him and his slightly out-of-control staff. The movie, released by Netflix, is based on the article and book by the late Michael Hastings. What Hastings and the film got precisely right is the impossible strategy behind America’s never-ending ground wars. There is no hero in this movie, and if there’s an anti-hero, it’s the war itself, which is profane, vicious, complex, and a bit naïve. By what I think is design, the war has more character than any characters in the film...
Pitt goes on to provide a summary that his troops know to be ridiculous: they must protect civilians while killing the enemy. The skeptical corporal . . . responds . . . “It seems to me that we’re all here with our guns and shit trying to convince these people that deep down we’re actually really nice guys. And I don’t know how to do that, sir. I don’t know how to do that when every second one of them or every third one of them or every tenth one of them is trying to fucking kill me, sir.”
I’m not going to argue that “War Machine” is the “Battle of Algiers” of our time. There is too much exposition, the movie tries to touch too many bases, and did I mention that Pitt is unimpressive? But the film is reminiscent, in its satirical marksmanship, of one of the best war movies of the late American empire: “Three Kings,” directed by David O. Russell and starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube as three U.S. soldiers during the Persian Gulf War who steal a secret cache of gold. “Three Kings,” like “War Machine,” was cinematically insane with moments of superhuman lucidity.
“War Machine” isn’t anti-war as much as it’s anti-general. Pitt’s character manifests the willing delusion of senior officers whose egos and ambitions are the pillars of perpetual warfare. He seems to really believe that he can defeat the Taliban. The skewering of this type of general is a timely corrective, because we live in an era of general worship, thanks in part to our general-loving president. . .
. . . the movie’s biggest fans are located — in the Pentagon. I met the kinds of officers and diplomats depicted so scathingly in “War Machine,” and while exaggerated in the movie, they are real. They probably mean well but they fail or refuse to see what everyone around them can see, and must pay for in blood. Our delusional leaders finally have the movie their insanity deserves.