The war in Afghanistan is a tragic version of the film Groundhog Day, where the same cycle of events gets played out over and over again with no discernible progress. We now have president Trump faced with the prospect of deciding whether to send in more troops and a new commander to break the stalemate, which is the same situation president Barack Obama faced in 2009 when he was newly elected.
A new president confronts an old war, one that bedeviled his predecessor. He is caught between seasoned military commanders, who tell him that the road to victory is to pour in more American troops, and skeptical political advisers, who argue that a major deployment is a futile exercise that will leave him politically vulnerable.
Barack Obama in 2009. But also Donald J. Trump in 2017.
Obama chose to send in new troops and a new commander and this film tells us what happened..
In June 2009, Obama fired General David McKiernan (then U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan) and replaced him with General Stanley McChrystal, whose tour in Iraq had given him a reputation as an expert on counter-insurgency, and to turn that disaster of a war around. Then along came journalist Michael Hastings who went to Afghanistan to look at how that war was progressing and was given extraordinary access by the publicity-loving general who wanted to be on the cover of the magazine but he was usurped by Lady Gaga. Hastings wrote a 2010 article titled The Runaway General in Rolling Stone magazine (that he later expanded in 2012 into a book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan) that resulted in McChrystal being fired because of the open criticisms of the Obama administration that McChrystal’s close aides made, in the presence of Hastings, often while on drinking sprees. I wrote back in 2010 about the article and Hastings’ critique of mainstream media. Sadly, Hastings died in 2013 in a car crash at the age of 33, bringing a sudden end to the life of a fearless journalist who had that most important quality, a deep skepticism of those in authority.
Netflix has produced an antiwar film War Machine starring Brad Pitt based on the book and article about the futility of the war in Afghanistan. The film, with a voiceover narration by the character playing Hastings, is described as a satire but the script follows the magazine article so closely that it is more like a documentary with a comedic spin. The film is such a thinly disguised version of reality (with only the names of key players changed, such as the Pitt character being called General Glen McMahon who is based closely on the real General Stanley McChrystal) that one must think that these cosmetic changes were merely to meet some legal requirements. The unnamed president is clearly Obama and the unnamed secretary of state is clearly Hillary Clinton. When it comes to the Afghan president, even that thin veneer is stripped away and he is called Hamid Karzai. In the film Ben Kingsley gives a comedic portrayal as the feckless Afghan president who knows that he is window dressing, to enable the Americans to pretend that Afghans are in charge of their country and that the US is merely assisting them.
Hastings’ article takes aim at the American myth of the superwarrior, the military leader who is personally tough, plain-spoken, earthy, smart, and beloved by his troops, the kind of person whom the American public tends to believe will militarily solve the problem if given a free hand.
He also set a manic pace for his staff, becoming legendary for sleeping four hours a night, running seven miles each morning, and eating one meal a day. (In the month I spend around the general, I witness him eating only once.) It’s a kind of superhuman narrative that has built up around him, a staple in almost every media profile, as if the ability to go without sleep and food translates into the possibility of a man single-handedly winning the war.
The media, to a large extent, have also given McChrystal a pass on both controversies. Where Gen. Petraeus is kind of a dweeb, a teacher’s pet with a Ranger’s tab, McChrystal is a snake-eating rebel, a “Jedi” commander, as Newsweek called him. He didn’t care when his teenage son came home with blue hair and a mohawk. He speaks his mind with a candor rare for a high-ranking official.
He went out on dozens of nighttime raids during his time in Iraq, unprecedented for a top commander, and turned up on missions unannounced, with almost no entourage. “The fucking lads love Stan McChrystal,” says a British officer who serves in Kabul. “You’d be out in Somewhere, Iraq, and someone would take a knee beside you, and a corporal would be like ‘Who the fuck is that?’ And it’s fucking Stan McChrystal.”
The current secretary of defense James Mattis, himself a general who served in Afghanistan, is described in similar heroic terms as someone who “earned a reputation as a swaggering warrior who would turn up in a foxhole with his troops.” The media seem to love this kind of macho stuff in their military leaders, however much it proves to be irrelevant when it comes to actual success. It persuades the public that if only the military were left to do what they think best, all these wars would be won and that it is the interfering by pusillanimous politicians that has resulted in a succession of American military defeats and stalemates.
To his credit, McChrystal was aware that simply killing people did not aid the war effort and that civilian casualties increased support for the militants. He tried to cut down on civilian casualties by urging his troops to not be so trigger happy, and this resulted in a backlash from troops who felt that his restrictions prevented them from taking the fight to the enemy and were putting them in danger
I enjoyed the film. Oddly enough, the one thing that I found distracting was one aspect of Pitt’s performance. He is a good actor but I think he was ill-advised to devote so much energy to mimicking McChrystal’s looks and mannerisms: his scowl, his gruff voice, his ramrod bearing, and loping gait. He was trying so hard that you could tell he was acting. McChrystal is not a familiar figure and few people would recognize him by sight so Pitt would have done better to dial it back a little and just give us the essence of his personality rather than the details of his exterior.
Hastings was an excellent reporter who exposed the absurdities of the American political process before shifting his attention to the futility of American wars. One sure sign of how successful he was can be seen by the fact that his article resulted in him being banned from being embedded with US troops. Many in the establishment media, who devoutly believe in American exceptionalism and goodness and thus can be safely embedded because they will not say anything that makes the military look bad, turned their guns to attack Hastings for risking the whole embedding process with his outspokenness.
Here’s the trailer.