The new Netflix movie “War Machine” features Brad Pitt as an American general commanding allied forces in Afghanistan. The film is a fictionalized account of the downfall of a real U.S. general, Stanley McChrystal, who was relieved of duty by President Obama after a less-than-flattering profile in Rolling Stone.
Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with retired Army Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey (@Jason_K_Dempsey), who fought in Afghanistan, and Washington Post reporter Greg Jaffe (@GregJaffe), who covered the war. Dempsey and Jaffe recently watched the film together.
On Brad Pitt’s performance as a general based on Gen. Stanley McChrystal
Greg Jaffe: “I thought it wasn’t a convincing portrayal of McChrystal. I think [Pitt] kind of played him as a buffoon, and I thought that that’s a little bit of a missed opportunity. McChrystal is a thoughtful, and was a thoughtful, commander, who definitely had his weak points, and made his mistakes, but there was a lot of good there, including real concerns about civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and a real sense of empathy and compassion for the Afghan people.”
On the film having an anti-military message
Jason Dempsey: “That’s why I liked it. But to carry on with Greg’s point, the interesting thing about the movie was it decidedly was not a portrayal of Stan McChrystal. And I think it’s worth repeating that Stan McChrystal is probably one of the most talented, brilliant officers that this nation has produced, at least in my generation. But the point and the irony of the movie was, how do you get such a massively talented person in country, but he appears to be in a system — both political and military — that has no chance of success.”
On McChrystal describing a U.S. raid in his autobiography
GJ: “McChrystal was on this raid and, as he tells the story in the autobiography, the Special Forces soldiers that he’s accompanying, the U.S. soldiers, make this Iraqi father of a 4-year-old lie on the ground face down with guns pointed at him, and his 4-year-old son watches this, and repeats the same gesture: He falls to the floor and presses his face against the concrete, like his father. And McChrystal remembers watching this and looking at the expression on the dad’s face and thinking, ‘We’ve just demeaned and humiliated this man. If we’re doing this on a nightly basis, there’s just no way we can win this war.'”
On whether Jaffe’s assertion that America’s four-star commanders inhabit an “intoxicating and often lonely bubble” is accurate
JD: “It absolutely is, and the irony of all this is that there are no true villains in our unfolding, slow-rolling Afghanistan catastrophe. Everybody goes over there with good intentions. The problem is the military has set up a system whereby we are rotating people in and out constantly, and so each gets to set his or her own definition of success for the nine to 12 months that they’re gonna be in country. And so what we have after 11, 12 years of fairly concerted effort, and 16 years since the initial invasion of Afghanistan, is a bunch of military officers who’ve blown through and said, ‘Well I made a difference,’ but nobody has ever stepped back and said, ‘Well if you add all that up, are we actually going in the right direction?'”
GJ: “The famous slogan that everyone wants to put on coffee cups is, ‘We were winning the war when I left.'”
On flaws in the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan
JD: “One thing we never acknowledged was the reality of Afghanistan, and this is where, whenever I hear generals or politicians say, ‘Well, we’re not making progress in Afghanistan because everybody is corrupt. They don’t have a good rule of law.’ I interpret that very simply as, our strategy for Afghanistan would be working perfectly if only Afghanistan was a different country. And to me, that’s kind of where some of the absurdity is captured in the movie. It’s this idea that we’re gonna create a new nation out of whole cloth, and that somehow we can rotate guys in and out, and take a very superficial approach to changing the country, and not acknowledge that there are widespread and deep, underlying political dynamics that we don’t even understand.”
On the theme of absurdity in the film
JD: “The bottom line is, ‘War Machine’ really is an absurd movie. You can’t take it as, ‘This is a realistic portrayal of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and how they go to war.’ But you can take it as a very poignant and very accurate take on kind of the hubris and arrogance with which we’ve approached the Afghan conflict. And so it almost wasn’t absurd enough, and part of that would be, what is it about the military bureaucracy and the way we’ve set up this fight — the way we’ve manned it, the way we’ve resourced it — such that the entire military can roll in and think they’re making a difference, but the end result is ultimately failure? And particularly with this idea now that we’re gonna send 5,000 or so troops back into Afghanistan, and I have yet to hear a policymaker or senior military leader articulate how these 5,000 are gonna make a difference, when 100,000 could not five years ago.”