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What Does Netflix's "War Machine" Tell Us?

Walter G. Moss: A constant reoccurring problem that the USA has had in its various military and political interventions in Latin America, and countries such as Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan is that the governments we support are corrupt and/or undemocratic, and have different goals than we do.
war machine

Brad Pitt

Netflix’s recently released War Machine (WM) is not a great film, but it does convey some important truths to U.S. audiences. A half century after escalating our troop involvement in Vietnam, we are still making a similar mistake. President George W. Bush sent U.S. troops into Iraq in 2003 and gradually increased the number to 170,300 in late 2007 before beginning a reduction.

President Obama expedited the reduction and completed the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, but increased U.S. forces in Afghanistan before finally reducing the number.

Now, President Trump has announced his intention to allow Secretary of Defense (and retired general) James Mattis to increase U.S troops to augment the eight thousand plus still in Afghanistan, the site of the U.S.’s longest war.

Why do we keep getting involved in wars we do not win? What essential mistakes are we making? Foreign policy is a complex matter, and for most U.S. voters harder to understand than domestic policy. No film is going to tell moviegoers all they need to know in order to make wise judgments about U.S. entanglements, including wars. But because films are a form of popular culture and can reach large audiences, they can greatly affect public opinion.

About a decade ago, I wrote about how war films influenced Americans in the later part of the twentieth century. In 1977 Philip Caputo recalled how as a young college student in 1960 he enrolled in a Marine officer training program partly as a result of the romantic heroism of such war movies as Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Guadalcanal Diary (1943), and Retreat, Hell! (1952).

He explained his motivation as such “The heroic experience I sought was war; war, the ultimate adventure; war, the ordinary man's most convenient means of escaping from the ordinary. . . . Already I saw myself charging up some distant beachhead like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and then coming home a suntanned warrior with medals on my chest .. .I needed to prove something—my courage, my toughness, my manhood.”

After being sent to Vietnam and soon realizing that “both we and the Viet Cong began to make a habit of atrocities,” he no longer saw combat in such romantic terms.Other Vietnam veterans also recalled the impact of films about World War II, especially the very popular To Hell and Back (1955), starring Audie Murphy and based on the autobiography of this war hero turned actor.

Both Ron Kovic, in his Born on the Fourth of July (1976), and Lieutenant William Calley, court-martialed for the Vietnam atrocity My Lai, mentioned Murphy’s influence on their desire to fight in Vietnam.During the 1991 Gulf War, decorated combat veteran Colonel David Hackworth observed of Western troops, “Hollywood completely colors their way of seeing war.”

Thus, any film like War Machine that points out some of the folly of our foreign interventions provides a needed corrective to other films that romanticize or glorify war. Moreover, War Machine sheds some light on how and why we keep getting wrong the sending of U.S. troops to war zones. 

This is not to say that this film is an even-handed portrayal of U. S. military leadership. It is a satire of such leadership, based on two works of journalist Michael Hastings, a depiction of General Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone and the book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan.

war machine

Tilda Swinton

Besides poking fun at McCrystal, portrayed as General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt), WM also satirizes other officers, especially the film’s General Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall), who is based onGeneral Michael Flynn, the man whojust months before the film’s release was forced to resign as President Trump’s national security adviser because he misled Vice-President Pence, and who is still being investigated by various congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller.

In Hastings’ The Operators he recalls Flynn’s youth when he was sometimes “out-of-control drunk” and quotes some of the general’s staff joking that he was like “a rat on acid,” who suffered from a “severe case of attention deficit disorder.”

As played by Hall, the Flynn-like General Pulver’s over-the-top personality provides plenty of humor, as does Pitt’s depiction of McCrystal, but WM is more important for suggesting some of the reasons how and why we continue to involve ourselves in tragic wars that cost unacceptable losses of lives, money, and maimed human beings.

One reason is the difficulty of fighting guerilla wars. As one Marine tells Pitt’s General McMahon, “I don't know, sir. It seems to me that we 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, 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.” (All quotes from the film taken from the film script).

But perhaps the most important reason is personal and national hubris. At one point in the film a Hastings-like narrator indicates that the staff surrounding Pitt’s General McMahon were full of hubris. “These guys thought they were the most important guys in the world . . . with the most important jobs in the world.”

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At another point a German legislator (Tilda Swinton) says to McMahon, “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.” Throughout the film McMahon clearly believes that his counterinsurgency strategy can win the war in Afghanistan—if he can only get the full support of President Obama.

On a national level we have seen this hubris time and time again. In a new Introduction to Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History (1952), Andrew Bacevich writes that “Niebuhr warned that what he called . . . ‘our dreams of managing history’—dreams borne of a peculiar combination of arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-delusion—posed a large, potentially mortal threat to the United States. Today we ignore that warning at our peril.”

More than a decade after Niebuhr’s book first appeared, Senator William Fulbright in his The Arrogance of Power (1966) warned against our arrogance in Vietnam. On 19 March, 2003, the day the United States began its invasion of Iraq, Senator Robert Byrd once again accused us of hubris: “We flaunt our superpower status with arrogance. We treat UN Security Council members like ingrates who offend our princely dignity by lifting their heads from the carpet. Valuable alliances are split. After war has ended, the United States will have to rebuild much more than the country of Iraq. We will have to rebuild America’s image around the globe.”

In Rumsfeld’s Wars: The Arrogance of Power (2008), scholar Dale R. Herspring, a conservative Republican, criticized President Bush’s secretary of defense for his arrogance. Rumsfeld’s successor as secretary of defense, Robert Gates, has written of U.S. arrogance in another area—Russia: “From 1993 onward, the West, and particularly the United States, had badly underestimated the magnitude of Russian humiliation in losing the Cold War and then in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. . . . The arrogance, after the collapse, of American government officials, academicians, businessmen, and politicians in telling the Russians how to conduct their domestic and international affairs . . . had led to deep and long-term resentment and bitterness.”

One of the best recent books for placing War Machine in its proper context is Bacevich’s America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (see my review here)—it is pertinent that Bacevich attended the Washington DC screening (May 2017) of War Machine and moderated a panel discussion of the film following its showing; it is also relevant that Bacevich is a West Point graduate, Vietnam War veteran, retired army officer and former professor, with a Ph.D. from Princeton. He also had a son killed in Iraq in 2007.

Towards the end of his book, which covers the years 1980 to 2015, he writes of four assumptions that contributed to the U.S. government’s misguided Middle Eastern policies of the last third century. “None of these assumptions,” he writes, “has any empirical basis. Each of the four drips with hubris. Taken together, they sustain the absence of self-awareness that has become an American signature [and a] nearly insurmountable barrier to serious critical analysis.” (365)

In his book, Bacevich criticizes several areas of U.S. policy that the WM film satirizes.One is our lack of clarity about why our troops have remained in Afghanistan since 2001. “As the fighting in Afghanistan entered its second decade with no end in sight, it was becoming ever more difficult to understand what the United States hoped to achieve by remaining in such a distant country about which most Americans knew little and cared even less. Save Afghanistan from the Taliban? What made Afghans worth the trouble? Why not save Mexico from predatory drug cartels? Why not save Haiti or Venezuela?” (297)

In the WM film the German legislator played by Tilda Swinton says to Pitt’s General McMahon, “General, the US invaded Afghanistan because of the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11th. . . .You have been speaking to us now for 45 minutes, and yet in all of that time you have only mentioned al-Qaeda once.”

She cites estimates that there are “little more than 100 al-Qaeda fighters that still remain in Afghanistan.” She doubts whether any “monolithic Taliban” exists and thinks that McMahon is “fighting 1,000 separate battles with locals whose principal ideological position would seem to be simply that they don't want foreign soldiers in their village.”

McMahon responds, “with all due respect, ma'am. Uh . . . I must beg to differ. I firmly believe, having traveled to all corners of the country, having spoken with many people from many walks of life. . . that what these people want is the very same thing that you and I want. . . . Freedom, security, stability, jobs. Progress is being made. Real Progress.”

Bacevich bemoans the type of remark and belief of McMahon that the Afghans want the “very same thing” as Americans. In his book he criticizes George W. Bush and other presidents for naïvely thinking that other people share American values and attitudes. As he says about Afghans, “the divide separating ‘us’ from ‘them’ is a chasm.” (311)

This divide is noted toward the end of the film when McMahon gives a talk to local Afghans after a U. S. attack has caused civilian losses. He tells them that only America can provide them roads, schools, and jobs. But one of the Afghans responds that when the Americans leave “they will be left in a big mess. And every day that you [U.S. and coalition forces] spend here longer, the worse it will be for them when you leave. So please, leave now.”

Two other problems that Bacevich writes about that are demonstrated in the film are the divide between U. S. military and civilian authorities and the relations between U.S. generals and officials and the political leadership of the host country—in the film’s case that of President Karzai (humorously played by Ben Kingsley).

In his survey of U. S. policy in “the Greater Middle East,” Bacevich often writes of the lack of unity between the goals of the generals and civilian authorities. According to him, in 2003, the top general in Iraq, Ricardo Sanchez, and Paul Bremer, the top US civilian administrator of Iraq, “despised one another. Civil-military tensions undercut unity of effort.” (257). The author also devotes about ten pages to the difficult relations between General McChrystal and President Obama and his officials. In the film, the generals often criticize Obama. General Pulver (the General-Flynn-like character) says, “Obama's not a leader. He's an orator.” The president kept saying “Yes, we can. Yes, we can.” But his messaged in regard to Iraq and Afghanistan was “No, we can't.”

A constant reoccurring problem that the USA has had in its various military and political interventions in Latin America, and countries such as Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan is that the governments we support are corrupt and/or undemocratic, and have different goals than we do. Bacevich writes that “Karzai stands in relation to the Afghanistan War as [South Vietnamese President] Ngo Dinh Diem stands in relation to the Vietnam War.” (229) In the film the U. S. Ambassador to Afghanistan tells General McMahon, “You need a legitimate partner here, Glen. Karzai ain't that guy. . . . [He] might be a drug addict. He eliminated his chief opponent in this election by spreading a pretty vicious homosexual rumor, and we're pretty sure that his brother is a straight-up criminal warlord.”

Although War Machine only provides us a limited picture of the complexity of “America’s longest war,” it raises enough issues to suggest that U.S. authorities and the public in general need to be much more skeptical than heretofore about the wisdom of sending more troops to Afghanistan—or even retaining the thousands of troops still there.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss

Moss was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, stationed in Oklahoma and France, from 1960 to 1962.