War Machine (2017)

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Brad Pitt as General McMahon and Ben Kingsley as President Hamid Karzai

In 2010 I remember reading about US General Stanley Allen McChrystal, the warrior monk runner, eating only one meal a day, and subsisting on four hours’ sleep in every 24. Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings painted him as a bizarre figure, like George C Scott’s Buck Turgidson, or perhaps just as a consequence of Hastings’ antipathy for the military in general and McChrystal in particular.

Hastings’ profile was not at all sympathetic to the progeny of a military family who spent his entire life being a soldier. As if unaware that the martial society of men has always created a culture quite alien from any civil society. There wasn’t much reflection in his piece on how people are shaped by that kind of experience, and not much empathy for a different kind of life experience to his own.

Australian writer-director David Michôd was much more sympathetic in his script for the $60 million Netflix War Machine, a sometimes bitingly satirical, sometimes mournfully sad look at the chaotic US approach to its permanent state of war, and the men who deliver frontline execution of policies so bizarre and contradictory no single link in the chain of command understands them, from the White House down to the grunts in the field.

The point is illustrated very clearly when Corporal Billy Cole (Keith Stanfield) tells General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) that he’s confused:

Cpl Cole: … I can’t tell the difference between the people and the enemy. They all look alike to me. I’m pretty sure they’re the same people, sir.

Gen McMahon: I understand it can be tough, son, but that’s the job.

Cpl Cole: I have another question. Um, I hear now they’re giving out medals for heroic restraint. Do I have that right?

Gen McMahon: Courageous restraint. And that is right.

Cpl Cole: Well, I don’t mean to be rude, sir, but I do not understand what the fuck that means.

Gen McMahon: It means, son, that sometimes when you’re dealing with an insurgency, you’re not gonna be one hundred per cent clear on who the enemy is. It means you’re gonna find yourself in situations where, when you’re afraid or whatnot, you’re gonna have to make a judgment call. Because, as Sergeant Ortega here has so rightly pointed out, your mission is to protect the people, not kill them. We can’t help them and kill them at the same time. It just ain’t humanly possible. Do you understand me?

Cpl Cole: No, not really, sir. No.

Gen McMahon: What part are you struggling to comprehend, son?

Cpl Cole: 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. ‘Cause I’m a marine. ‘Cause we’re marines. And it seem like now they handing out medals for heroically not being a marine, sir. I’m confused, is what I’m trying to say, sir.

Gen McMahon: Well, then you’re just gonna have to get yourself unconfused, son.

But there never is a moment when the situation becomes more clear than this exchange. Afghanistan is presented as an irresolvable disaster area in which a succession of military commanders are essentially required to sit out their tours of duty inactively, pretending they are doing something useful, and being jerked around by politicians up and down the chain.

Brad Pitt’s performance as McMahon is funny. The way the lampooning of General McChrystal by Hastings was intended to be. But it is also touching, in places, and sympathetic to the mind-set of a warrior sent to be a nursemaid, politician, and administrator.

The chaos of McMahon’s entourage of caricature misfits doesn’t quite work dramatically, but it does reinforce the difference between a macho martial culture and the reality of a politically misdirected war on insurgents, who are enemies impossible to distinguish from benign civilian populations.

Forcing McMahon to become a diplomat to solicit aid for an unpopular war in Europe is stinging indictment of US foreign policy under President Obama, and of his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who were responsible for the political management of the war, but failed to support their own policy with the necessary diplomacy. It is easy to take the view that they hung their own troops out to dry by forcing them to be there, yet preventing them from doing anything more than presenting themselves as targets in a shooting gallery, and making themselves targets of criticism for killing innocent civilians.

The heart-breaking sequence in which Corporal Cole single-handedly kills three enemy snipers, but also an innocent boy, is underscored by the transactional mentality in which the only recompense that can be offered is money. This is followed shortly later by a scene in which villagers explain through a translator why the fly-in, fly-out nature of US troops just creates a bigger danger for them than if they stayed away altogether. It is a lesson the USA should have learnt since the Vietnam War, but has not.

War Machine does not spare Obama in that regard. I have to say that this is a satisfying critique of a much overrated president. Like most of the world I was pretty optimistic when he was first elected in 2008, but just half a year later it became apparent that he was a conservative incrementalist who did not have the stomach to do what needed to be done to fix the mess left behind by the Bush and Clinton administrations. The continuing dithering in Afghanistan remains one of his biggest failures.

I couldn’t help but think of the narrator, representing the real life journalist Michael Hastings, as a stoner type pursuing an adolescent perspective on the weirdness of military folks without sympathy for their predicament, and perhaps thinking of himself vainly as another Hunter S Thompson. But I guess, as a journalist, my profile of McChrystal would not have been much more flattering, even if I would have focused more on the political economy of his situation.

The film offers a few laughs, if you can laugh at military caricatures, and it was well-acted by all involved. But it is missing more than one single truly dramatic moment. I think there should have been a harsher commentary on the Afghan elections. Ben Kingsley as President Hamid Karzai was a great start, but he was largely wasted as an aside rather than employed forcefully to explain the futility of elections in an occupied country which couldn’t possibly take seriously a symbolic gesture engaged in purely for show to the rest of the world. The marvellous cameo by Tilda Swinton as a German politician questioning the point of the war was excellent, but not quite enough to carry the abject failure of McMahon’s European sojourn; there was room for a more dramatic portrayal of that failure.

I think there was also a missed opportunity to be more savage about the futility of sacking the general without resolving any of the issues his ill-advised Rolling Stone profile brought to light.

Critique aside, though, this is a more worthwhile film than the superhero and other juvenile pap to come out of Hollywood so far this year.

Michael Hastings.
Michael Hastings.

It was a nice touch to end the film with McMahon’s replacement, identified only as ‘Bob’, striding through the airport, the way McMahon had at the beginning of the film. Bob was played by the uncredited Russell Crowe, looking extraordinarily mean and pissed off, with fellow Australian actor Dan Wyllie as one of his flanking retinue. A small favour to Michôd from his compatriots? The message of this very short scene is that another military eccentric was about to face exactly the same unresolved problems as McMahon. Perhaps repeating McMahon’s mistakes.

McChrystal was actually succeeded by General David Patraeus, who distinguished himself in Afghanistan by doing nothing, but publicly apologising for civilian casualties. He was later forced to retire as CIA director when he was farcically indiscreet about an extra-marital affair.

As a footnote, the journalist who wrote the McChrystal profile for Rolling Stone that cost him his job, Michael Hastings, went on to become a vocal critic of the Obama Democrats, state espionage activities against the civilian population, and Attorney General Eric Holder’s authoritarian move to secretly investigate journalists. Hastings died in 2013, aged 33, in a high speed car wreck during which his body was incinerated.

Vanity Affair’s digital director Mike Hogan wrote in the same year:

Former U.S. National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke told The Huffington Post that what is known about the single-vehicle crash is “consistent with a car cyber attack.”

‘Clarke said, “There is reason to believe that intelligence agencies for major powers” — including the United States — know how to remotely seize control of a car.

Hastings was driving a 2013 Mercedes C250 coupe when he crashed into a tree on Highland Ave. in Los Angeles at approximately 4:30 am on June 18. Video posted online showed the car in flames, and one neighbor told a local news crew she heard a sound like an explosion. Another eyewitness said the car’s engine had been thrown 50 to 60 yards from the car. There were no other vehicles involved in the accident.

The fire was so all-consuming that it took the Los Angeles County coroner’s office two days to identify Hastings’ body, but Clarke said a cyber attack on the vehicle would have been nearly impossible to trace “even if the dozen or so computers on board hadn’t melted.”

Hastings practiced a brand of no-holds-barred journalism that tended to anger powerful people. His 2010 profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, published in Rolling Stone, was so damaging that it ostensibly prompted President Barack Obama to fire the general (the president denied that the article had a role in his decision).

In the days before his death, Hastings was reportedly working on a story about a lawsuit filed by Jill Kelley, who was involved in the scandal that brought down Gen. David Petraeus, according to the LA Times. KTLA reported that Hastings told colleagues at the news site BuzzFeed that he feared the FBI was investigating him. On June 20, the FBI denied that any investigation was under way.


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