Why ‘War Ma­chine’ digs it­self a hole

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Muham­mad Idrees Ah­mad Muham­mad Idrees Ah­mad is a lec­turer in dig­i­tal jour­nal­ism at the Uni­ver­sity of Stir­ling.

Hast­ings’s story had the Con­ra­dian el­e­ments, from the drama of hubris­tic rise and fall to the fluid bor­ders be­tween civil­i­sa­tion and bar­barism

Late last month, Barack Obama stood in front of an ador­ing au­di­ence in Ber­lin to de­fend the drone strikes that were cen­tral to his counter-ter­ror­ism strat­egy. Obama re­lied on drones and Special Forces as a cheaper al­ter­na­tive to the man­power-in­ten­sive counter-in­sur­gency strat­egy foisted upon his pre­de­ces­sor Ge­orge W Bush in his sec­ond term.

Obama’s strat­egy paid do­mes­tic div­i­dends as it re­duced the ma­te­rial and hu­man costs of war and, in the as­sas­si­na­tion of Osama bin Laden pro­vided Obama with an im­per­ish­able talk­ing point.

This is how Obama in­sists his for­eign pol­icy is un­der­stood; and this is its im­plied por­trayal in the new Net­flix film War Ma­chine.

With a bud­get of US $60 mil­lion (Dh220 mil­lion), the film is “inspired by” the late Rolling Stone jour­nal­ist Michael Hast­ings’s book The Op­er­a­tors, which was it­self ex­panded from his Rolling Stone ar­ti­cle The Run­away Gen­eral. Brad Pitt plays Gen­eral Glen McMa­hon, a fic­tion­alised ver­sion of Gen­eral Stan­ley McChrys­tal, who was the sub­ject of the ar­ti­cle that pre­cip­i­tated his fall.

The film’s cre­ative li­cense is not con­fined to McMa­hon’s char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion or name, how­ever. It also has a po­lit­i­cal bent. Con­sider the con­trast be­tween an in­ci­dent as por­trayed in the film and as re­ported by Hast­ings.

When Sean Cullen (the char­ac­ter based on Hast­ings) first meets McMa­hon and in­tro­duces him­self as a Rolling Stone jour­nal­ist, the gen­eral asks him to put him on the cover. “It’s be­tween you and Lady Gaga, sir”, the jour­nal­ist jokes back. The gen­eral asks again. His em­bar­rassed wife tells the jour­nal­ist that he’s only jok­ing. But the gen­eral re­peats earnestly: “I just want to get on the cover.” But the scene, as re­ported by Hast­ings, has an ironic note. McChrys­tal’s com­plete com­ment is: “I just want to get on the cover so I can fi­nally gain my son’s re­spect.”

McChrys­tal’s ca­reer has failed to im­press his son, a mu­si­cian. And McChrys­tal, a so­cial lib­eral in spite of his machismo, be­lieves mak­ing the cover of Rolling Stone may change that. It is a joke.

McChrys­tal was no buf­foon and his counter-in­sur­gency strat­egy (which pri­ori­tised win­ning over lo­cal pop­u­la­tions) wasn’t quite as mad as it is por­trayed in the film. In Iraq it helped to sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce vi­o­lence af­ter 2007. In­deed, Afghanistan’s con­di­tion wors­ened once McChrys­tal was re­placed with Gen­eral David Pe­traeus, who es­ca­lated the use of air­power and special op­er­a­tions.

Fun­da­men­tally both strate­gies were doomed be­cause they treated po­lit­i­cal res­o­lu­tion as an af­ter­thought to mil­i­tary suc­cess. But where McChrys­tal showed some sen­si­tiv­ity to lo­cal con­cerns, the re­liance on drone strikes de­ferred the risk en­tirely onto lo­cal pop­u­la­tions.

The my­opia of the counter-ter­ror­ism pol­icy was best il­lus­trated in Obama’s ap­proach to Syria where the pres­i­dent ig­nored the causes of the con­flict and fo­cused on the symp­tom (ISIL), thereby ex­ac­er­bat­ing the sit­u­a­tion. This gave the Syr­ian regime – the main killer – a freer hand.

In Iraq, Obama made a counter-ter­ror­ism al­liance with the same sec­tar­ian forces whose depre­da­tions contributed to the rise of ISIL. The re­sult­ing es­ca­la­tion desta­bilised the whole re­gion.

The ob­tru­sive un­palata­bil­ity of Donald Trump has made the lib­eral United States for­get that Obama’s sins of omis­sion have proved no less dis­as­trous than the sins of com­mis­sion of his much-re­viled pre­de­ces­sor, Bush.

War Ma­chine, partly filmed in the UAE, is a well-in­ten­tioned lib­eral cri­tique of US mil­i­tarism that de­cries the US’s ten­dency to avoid po­lit­i­cal para­doxes by fo­cus­ing on the bright, clear prob­lems of war (C Wright Mills called it “crackpot re­al­ism”). This would be poignant if the film didn’t con­trast McChrys­tal’s bel­li­cos­ity with Obama’s sup­posed re­straint. Obama’s legacy, from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria to Ye­men, is tes­ti­mony

to the fact that in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs the con­se­quences of in­ac­tion can be as dev­as­tat­ing as the con­se­quences of ac­tion.

War Ma­chine makes many al­lu­sions to Apoca­lypse Now, from the visual mo­tifs of he­li­copters fly­ing against the sun­set to a Con­ra­dian anti-hero who has been led into the heart of dark­ness. But in di­lut­ing the edge of the un­der­ly­ing ma­te­rial and elim­i­nat­ing the com­plex­ity of its cen­tral char­ac­ter, it ends up as a de­riv­a­tive The Men Who Stare at Goats.

The film tells more than it shows; in case the nar­ra­tor has failed to tell you what to think, there is a cameo by Tilda Swin­ton as a left-wing Ger­man politi­cian who re­it­er­ates the film’s mes­sage. This is a shame. Be­cause Hast­ings wrote a good book and the is­sues he raised have once again be­come rel­e­vant. His story had the Con­ra­dian el­e­ments, from the drama of hubris­tic rise and fall to the fluid bor­ders be­tween civil­i­sa­tion and bar­barism. This moun­tain, how­ever, has de­liv­ered a mouse.

The les­son for now is that films tack­ling dif­fi­cult sub­jects need stars to se­cure au­di­ence at­ten­tion, but they won’t suc­ceed with­out good sto­ry­telling.

Paula Bron­stein / Getty Im­ages

US Army Gen­eral Stan­ley McChrys­tal, Nato ISAF Com­man­der, in Afghanistan in 2009.

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