Let it All Out, War Machine

I was asked by Truth, Politics, and Power to review the new Netflix satire War Machine. While recording, I kept channeling Peter Overby from NPR, who has my favorite radio voice of al time. So, be sure to mentally read with his intonation.

In the first twenty minutes of War Machine, I was boiling over with frustration, the kind of combustible rage you feel when your husband is arguing with you based on a set of totally alternate facts. The details were wrong, the personalities were overdrawn, and it was above all dis-res-PECT-ful to the men and women who served there. Spitting mad, the word echoed in my brain.

Then the film made an off-hand, not terribly funny joke about the Richard Holbrooke inspired special envoy character demanding to be called “Richard,” not Dick, by his faux-General Stanley McChrystal counterpart. The real Holbrooke notoriously asked the same of President Obama, to regular mocking in the national security crowd. Watching that sad little jab, this splendid relief took hold. The kind of relief when you finally got caught drinking and swearing by your mom and you can let it all out. Oh, I thought. Let it all out, War Machine.

The war in Afghanistan is many things that have been portrayed eloquently and horrifically by artists and journalists, veterans and diplomats. But like most things in life it has also been a long a soap opera, rife with stereotypes, missed connections, affairs of the heart and soul, and acute misunderstandings. War Machine grasped that much of its tragedy was due to boiling down exquisitely complex strategies and desires into short, superficial encounters without much connection to reality. The general is a self-serving, media hungry war monger; the Flynn stand-in a co-dependent, anger-management poster child; the short-sighted fan boys on the military staff are dedicated to their boss, not their country; the diplomats are buffoonish peaceniks; the president was out of touch; the politicos just want out of Afghanistan; the allies were losers; the Marines didn’t get it; the Afghan people were hordes to be won over, their troops were pathetic, their leader ineffectual. Counterinsurgency was an unquestioned holy cause.

None of this was true, of course, and most knew it. But policy and strategy at these senior levels are built around strained discussions that demand players act as their own worst cliche. Many oblige, and even if they don’t, it’s simpler to assume that they do. War Machine satirically portrays that period in Afghanistan not as it actually was but as it seemed to those involved at their most disillusioned and punch drunk. As Jason Dempsey, a repeat Afghanistan veteran, told the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe, “It’s an absurd movie about an absurd war,” but it made an effort to get those absurdities right far more than it did the tactical details of America’s longest conflict. In doing so, it asked the questions of what are we doing here, is this worth the cost, better than any recent epic war drama with a John Williams-esque soundtrack and slow motion patriotism.