An Army historical team recently interviewed one of your loyal “Strategic Outpost” columnists about his time as overall U.S. commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. The team had already read Dave’s personal notebooks — the government-issued “green books” in which he recorded his daily meetings, notes, to do lists, and impressions of his 19 months in command.
One team member noted: “Sir, we were struck by how many times the capital letters “W-T-F?” showed up in your notes!”
Tina Fey’s new movie Whiskey Tango Foxtrot covers much of the same time period in Afghanistan, and its title is no coincidence. For Dave, watching “his” war in Afghanistan on the silver screen, through a reporter’s eyes, was alternatively improbable, jarring, and moving.
The movie, which is based on a true story, is a window into the early years of America’s longest war. It follows Fey’s character, Kim Baker, as she leaves her mundane newsroom job in New York in 2003 and heads to Afghanistan to cover the war — a job for which she is completely unprepared. It shows her initiation into the chaotic and dangerous world of combat journalism, and her next four years gaining hard-won experience. While parts of the story may be exaggerated (not all Westerners partied that hard in Kabul, for example), it paints a nuanced picture of a complicated people, a complicated culture, and a complicated war.
One of the most realistic and troubling plotlines is watching Baker struggle to have her TV editors give any air time to a war that is out of the public’s mind, buried behind headlines of the ongoing catastrophe in Iraq. The same was true within the U.S. government, since Afghanistan was an “economy of force” operation, at the bottom of the wartime priority list in everything from troops to reconstruction dollars. In one early scene, Baker interviews a young Marine who sums up the views of many Americans who served in Afghanistan: “Ma’am, it’s the Forgotten War. Capital F, Capital W.”
The movie does surprisingly well painting the intertwined but parallel lives of Afghans, the U.S. military, and reporters existing in three very different worlds amidst an ongoing conflict. The principal face of the U.S. military in the film is a long-serving U.S. Marine commander played by Billy Bob Thornton. Fey’s character convinces Thornton to let her accompany him and his marines on a mission in her first days in country. She quickly gets schooled on how to walk, talk, and dress around troops about to go into combat. (It turns out that bright orange backpacks are a non-starter.) Fey and Thornton, war reporter and Marine commander, cross paths repeatedly throughout the following four years, and their interactions reflect the frustrations of both fighting and reporting on an often-invisible war.
Unfortunately, this long association may be the least plausible part of the entire movie. A commander like Thornton would have likely served for at most a year, and might well have been sent to Iraq for his next tour rather than deployed to Afghanistan again. Long-serving reporters like Baker (or, in real life, Carlotta Gall of The New York Times) actually provided far more continuity than the U.S. military. The constant shuffle of units and commanders hindered the operation at every level, up to and including the highest political level. During Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s almost 10 years in office, for example, he interacted with nine different overall U.S. senior commanders and seven different U.S. ambassadors in Kabul, an ever-changing cast that provided often-conflicting advice and strategies. This stark lack of continuity in American military and civilian leadership in Kabul put at risk any coherent approach to strategy. As Karzai remarked at the time, “So many messengers. What’s the message?” The war effort would have been far better off if more senior U.S. leaders had stayed in Afghanistan as long as Thornton’s character did.
The movie gets much right about Afghanistan and its people, and will be familiar to those who served there. The beauty of the country, with snow-capped peaks circling Kabul, the vast mountains and deserts, the cluttered streets of the capital, and the vibrancy of cities and villages are all well drawn. The Afghan people flow through the movie like a kaleidoscopically noisy backdrop, appearing in all their diverse and confusing visages: burka-clad village women, men in traditional shalwar kameez, and senior Afghan government officials in Western business suits. But their culture and character only seeps through in snippets — such as the wedding feast of Fey’s interpreter. The harsher parts of life make regular appearances too — from butchering lambs at the end of Ramadan to young street beggars, corrupt government officials to surreptitious bestiality. The clashes and contrasts between a modern world of cell phones and Toyotas and a medieval world of misogyny and sometimes-primitive customs stand out sharply.
The movie also captures how U.S. military personnel often struggled to understand this complicated and very unfamiliar culture. Baker accompanies a Marine patrol (spoiler alert) as they return time and again to an Afghan village where they have built a well. Each time the marines leave, the well is blown up. As in the real-life version of this story, Baker discovers that the culprits are not the Taliban, but the burka-clad village women. They want to preserve their traditional long trek to the river to bring back water and have time to socialize away from the men. The Marine commander is stunned by this discovery and finds new respect for Baker. Much of the international reconstruction effort was similarly deeply flawed, as much reporting suggests.
Finally, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot shows that lots of people get killed and badly wounded even in a forgotten war. While many of the deaths in the film are impersonal and celluloid — Taliban fighters blown up by guided missiles or faceless civilian casualties carried away from an urban bomb scene — others strike close to home, both Western and Afghan. Dave remembers walking through the plywood hallways of the Marine headquarters in Helmand province in 2010 and counting over 200 small color photos framed on the walls — the vast majority Marines who had died in Helmand, memorialized in their blue dress uniforms. With much of that province back in Taliban hands today, this sacrifice is especially painful to contemplate. One of the movie’s closing scenes is particularly memorable in bringing home the costs borne by troops who have served in our wars, and the lifelong aftermath for many of them.
Afghanistan in 2016 remains America’s longest war, and one that ironically suffers once again from the lack of public interest as it did during the time of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Reflecting back on the immense sacrifices over the ensuing decade is sobering. While much has changed during the intervening decade — several years of top priority in Washington, a huge NATO troop surge, and nearly unlimited dollars — huge challenges remain. Reports suggest that violence is steadily increasing, the economy is worsening, and the Taliban may now control as much as 30 percent of the countryside. The United States and its partners now face agonizingly difficult choices about sustaining (or even increasing) troops numbers and further aid in the face of these continuing setbacks. Fifteen years, hundreds of thousands of troops, billions of dollars and untold Afghan and Western casualties have created seemingly little enduring progress in a war that continues unabated — once again, far from the headlines.
Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every other Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.
Photo credit: Lance Cpl. John McCall, U.S. Marine Corps