What We Saw in War Machine
The new Netflix movie War Machine is either terrible or terrific, depending on how you look at it. For Americans who know little about the war in Afghanistan and want to learn more, this is a terrible place to start. It is a ruthless satire of events during a particularly contentious segment of the nation’s longest war, and those who are unfamiliar with that period could far too easily mistake caricature for accuracy. But for those who know enough to tell the difference, the film is at different points funny, poignant, overblown — and gut-wrenchingly accurate when depicting the futility of war.
The movie is a fictionalized account of the war in Afghanistan featuring Brad Pitt as Gen. Glen McMahon, nicknamed “the Glenimal” — a thinly disguised version of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal assumed command of the war in June 2009, and was fired one year later after Rolling Stone published an unflattering account of his inner circle and their blatant disrespect for civilian leaders in the White House. The picture is loosely based on that article and the subsequent book by the same author.
War Machine will both intrigue and outrage military audiences, especially those who have served in the Afghan Hindu Kush. Some viewers — including your authors — personally know some of the key characters from real life, making the movie even more interesting to watch. (And one of us served as the senior U.S. commander there, though several years before McChrystal). Reviews of the film have been generally (though not uniformly) positive, because it paints a striking picture of the inherent dilemmas and ironies of waging our modern wars. Here’s our take.
What the Movie Gets Wrong
- The General. Brad Pitt plays the movie’s lead character as a buffoonish and rather dull-witted (though sincere) stereotype of the modern American general. His clownish rendering of McMahon is vastly at odds with the thoughtful and charismatic McChrystal. Nevertheless, Pitt portrays a well-intentioned leader thrust into extraordinarily complex and near-impossible situations in a long, drawn-out war. (And, unlike Pitt’s portrayal, McChrystal doesn’t really talk like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men.)
- The Chain of Command. In the movie, the irascible Afghan special envoy Richard Holbrooke (“Dick” on screen) and (always fleeting) President Barack Obama are McMahon’s only apparent bosses. Completely missing are McChrystal’s two military superiors, the commander of U.S. Central Command and the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (at the time, Gen. David Petraeus and Adm. James Stavridis respectively). The secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are also conspicuously nowhere to be found. Still, the scenes where McMahon interacts with the U.S. ambassador, embassy civilians, and numerous foreign leaders effectively showcase the confusing constellation of actors involved in the Afghan war — all of whom feel compelled to give McMahon pointed advice about what to do.
- The Loyal Wingman. Gen. Greg Pulver (played by the unrecognizable Anthony Michael Hall, of The Breakfast Club nerd fame) is the film’s take on then-Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn. Yes, that’s the same guy who served as President Donald Trump’s national security advisor for 24 days and who remains ensnared in scandal. In the movie, his character is McMahon’s closest companion and fiercest defender, raging at critics and chewing up the scenery in nearly every appearance. In the real world, Flynn didn’t start acting that crazy until after he left active duty.
- The Afghan Strategy Spaghetti Chart. McMahon glibly briefs a roomful of European parliamentarians with a PowerPoint slide depicting his counter-insurgency plan as a dense spider web of interconnecting lines and arrows. It is so complex and unintelligible that it looks like the scriptwriters conjured it up as a spoof, too bizarre to possibly be real. In fact, the actual chart was even worse. (We seriously strained our eyes comparing the two versions side by side, so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.)
- McMahon the Runner. Sorry, but there’s no way anybody who runs seven miles every day could maintain that painfully slow, bowlegged, puffed chest running form without landing in an orthopedic ward. It’s amazing that Brad Pitt isn’t still in physical therapy from his performance. The real McChrystal was (and is) both a very fast and envy-inducing runner with perfect form. Maddening.
What the Movie Gets Right
- The Isolation of Senior Wartime Commanders. McMahon is walled off from nearly every vestige of reality by his suffocating, inward-looking, and ferociously protective personal staff, most of whom served with him when he led the Joint Special Operations Command. They surround him everywhere he goes and fill his ears with the most positive spin on every encounter. No one who has been around the staffs of senior commanders in Iraq or Afghanistan will fail to recognize this pitch-perfect portrayal.
- Hubris as an Occupational Hazard. We don’t hire generals to be shrinking violets or doubtful about either their own capabilities or their prospects for success. As one character in the movie notes,
There are two types of generals in the American military. There are those who believe they can win in the face of all evidence to the contrary, and there are those who know they can’t. Unfortunately for the world, it’s the believers who climb to the top of the ladder.
McMahon never gives off even the slightest whiff of self-doubt or an iota of serious introspection — a problem we discuss further below.
- Wartime Pain for Military Families. For military audiences, arguably the most authentic scene in the movie involves McMahon and his wife, played by the terrific Meg Tilly. They reunite briefly while he is in Europe briefing NATO leaders, and happen to find themselves in Paris on their 30th wedding anniversary. In perhaps the most touching performance in the movie, Tilly wistfully reflects on their marriage. She tearfully shares her calculation that they have spent less than 30 days a year together for the last eight years. She goes on to tell him how proud she is of him for what he is doing, despite the obvious personal toll this has taken on her and their marriage. Their awkwardness together and McMahon’s difficulty stepping out of his wartime persona even when alone with his wife are all too real. Many of our military leaders (of all ranks) and their spouses who have experienced multiple combat deployments know that story far too well.
- The Unending Rotation of Military Commanders. The final scene shows that there is always another prospective military commander waiting in the wings — full of energy, vigor, and robust confidence in his ability to overcome all odds to succeed where others have failed. In Afghanistan, the incredibly rapid turnover of commanders has meant that 12 different U.S. generals have run the war since late 2001. Continuity, patience, and a deeper understanding of the daunting challenges at hand are all inevitably sacrificed in the unending frenzy of new commanders each trying to achieve demonstrable progress on their short watch. No business, university, or government could succeed with such turnover. It should be completely unacceptable when fighting a war.
- The Fight for the Rolling Stone Cover. Yes, it actually was between the general and Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga ultimately won. The general only got his pic inside. But the story, of course, ended up being about anything but the cover. (The movie’s best inside joke: A Lady Gaga song is playing in the Paris bar when McMahon’s staffers start their trash talk about the White House.)
The Big Takeaway
Tilda Swinton brilliantly plays a German parliamentarian who politely but relentlessly grills McMahon about his war-winning strategy during a briefing in Berlin. She is remorseless in trying to pin him down about the impact of his limitless hubris colliding with the gritty reality of a war that might not be winnable. Her best lines:
This [war] is the great moment of your life … it’s understandable to me that you should therefore have a fetish for completion … It is my job, however, to ensure your personal ambitions are not entirely delusional, and do not carry with them an unacceptable cost for everybody else.
This scene in many ways highlights the central question of the movie: What do we expect of our military commanders at war? Are we hiring them for their indomitable will to prevail over all obstacles — a will that must ineluctably be based on their powerful self-confidence and boundless optimism? Or do we want commanders who can look dispassionately at a military problem, taking in the political and cultural contexts, weigh the costs in time and casualties, and when appropriate, tell civilian leaders that something cannot or should not be done?
The answer, of course, is both. In one early scene, a British colonel on McMahon’s staff boldly gives his stark appraisal of what should be done in Helmand province. After telling his new boss that after five years, no hearts and minds have been won and none are likely to be, he bluntly advises: “This whole province constitutes just four percent of the population. It’s strategically meaningless. I’d cut Helmand loose, sir.”
Such candor and ruthless strategic thinking is even more important for generals than for colonels — and can be much tougher to share with senior civilian leaders who may have expansive goals and unrealistic timelines. Commanders are obligated to be forthright about their prospects to succeed with the time and resources they are given, without the bias of optimism. Yet this obligation directly clashes directly with their ingrained breeding to be can-do leaders who aggressively charge into adversity. By definition, generals have been rewarded throughout their careers for succeeding at tough and even seemingly-impossible tasks. At the four-star level, the complete self-confidence that comes from three or four decades of typically unbroken success is unlikely to suddenly transform into caution or a propensity to question the mission, no matter how impossible it may appear.
The questions raised by War Machine transcend the often-farcical nature of the film. As good satire, it mocks absurdity and skewers the foolhardy while suggesting deeper truths. It should be “must-see TV” for our current generals and all those who aspire to wear stars, even if it pops blood pressure cuffs with its wickedly snarky jabs. And as the nation once again evaluates the next steps in the never-ending war in Afghanistan, watching War Machine might also bring a bracing dose of strategic reality for everyone wrestling with these truly tough issues of war and peace.
Lt. Gen. 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 third 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.