“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” This reference encapsulates the impossibility of winning a counterinsurgency war. It’s a lesson all Americans should have learned over the last fifteen years of killing and dying in Afghanistan. That it dates from the Vietnam war shows what little hope there is that we will.
War Machine, a slightly fictionalized account of the rise and fall of General Stanley McChrystal, portrayed as Glenn McMahon and played by Brad Pitt, tries to make it clear that the very idea of fighting against a people you are trying to help, when the enemy and civilians are often one and the same, is fatally flawed. In this, the movie largely succeeds.
We also get from the film some idea of how ridiculous it is to fight a war you aren’t really trying to win and the untenable position in which that puts soldiers and their leaders, who, more often than not, are, at least in the abstract, motivated by good intentions. There’s personal tragedy that takes place on both sides of the fight when the line between them is ambiguous and transient, and that comes across loud and clear in War Machine as well.
There are plenty of other thought provoking assertions in this movie, such as that generals can bring about senseless violence when they allow their personal ambition to drive strategic decisions and that the decisions Presidents make about wars cause a lot of damage when they are motivated by political considerations.
Pitt’s performance is a bit over-the-top, but then again, we are told McMahon is a “true believer,” so perhaps that can be excused. At its core, War Machine isn’t a war movie, it’s a thought-provoking piece of satire, and an effective one.