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.
“You boys,” the general says, “are the only things that count. If it doesn’t happen here, it doesn’t happen. End of story.”
“What doesn’t happen, sir?” a Marine asks.
“It, son,” the general responds.
The Marine knows it would be unwise to demand a full explanation.
“Okay, thank you sir.”
The general, who doesn’t know better, bulls ahead.
“Does anyone here know what it is?” he asks.
This scene is familiar to me — I heard similar calls and responses while covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and at the same time this scene is utterly invented. 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 (let us resolve that Brad Pitt will never again play a general), it achieves greatness in the way it uses absurdity to assassinate the logic and reality of counterinsurgency warfare.
But you wouldn’t know the movie’s strengths if you read the reviews. “War Machine” has a 56 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has been largely dismissed by film critics whose closest encounter with a warzone is the bar at Balthazar on a Saturday night. They don’t like it because, as one wrote, there is an “absence of intimacy, of psychology, of characters’ self-revelation in thought and desire.” Yes, that particular reviewer graduated from Princeton with a degree in comparative literature, so there you go.
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.” And there’s this kind of reaction all over Twitter:
Watching War Machine and, having served in Afghanistan, not sure whether to laugh or cry
— RJ Stenson (@WestRivergrl) June 4, 2017
“War Machine” is directed by David Michod and 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 (attention critics: sometimes it’s not about actors and their self-revelations).
The scene in the desert, with Pitt’s character trying to encourage his unencouragable men, doesn’t end with the initial silence that greets his appeal for someone to explain what “it” is. 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 who spoke out at first, played brilliantly by Lakeith Stanfield, responds by pointing out the fallacy embedded in the general’s nonsense.
“I can’t tell the difference between the people and the enemy,” Stanfield says. “They all look alike to me. I’m pretty sure they’re the same people, sir.”
“I don’t know, sir,” he continues. “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. We have a retired general as the secretary of defense, another as the head of the Department of Homeland Security, yet another as the president’s national security advisor (actually two — the current one, H.R. McMaster, and his fired predecessor, Michael Flynn, who also happens to be the basis for one of the mad characters in “War Machine”).
One of the movie’s best scenes takes place in a conference hall in Germany, where Pitt is trying to drum up support for more allied troops to fight in Afghanistan. He comes armed with a whiteboard, and he deploys a bewildering flow chart about the dynamics of insurgency and counterinsurgency, but Tilda Swinton, playing a German member of parliament, blows it all to hell. She points out that the reason for invading Afghanistan was to crush Al Qaeda, which was based there with Osama bin Laden, and was pretty much chased out of the country in the first months of the invasion. After so many years of stalemate against the Taliban, what is the purpose of continuing to fight?
“As an elected representative of the people of Germany, it is my job to ensure that the personal ambitions of those who serve those people are kept in check,” Swinton says. “You have devoted your entire life, general, to the fighting of war, and this situation in Afghanistan for you is the culmination of all your years of training, all your years of ambition. This is the great moment of your life. It is understandable to me that you should have therefor a fetish for completion, to make your moment glorious. It is my job, however, to ensure that your personal ambitions are not entirely delusional and do not carry with them an unacceptable cost for everybody else.”
It might sound like a lecture that only an anti-war leftie could write or appreciate, and it might sound unfair to the now-we-know-what-to-do generals who command, with square-jawed authority, the forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, but remember where 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.