I took an Afghan war vet to Brad Pitt’s an­timil­i­tary film. He liked it.

‘War Ma­chine’ ac­knowl­edges that not all sol­diers are he­roes, writes The Post’s

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Greg Jaffe

The lights had just come up and the cred­its were still rolling on “War Ma­chine,” a new movie that pil­lo­ries the U.S. mil­i­tary for its per­for­mance in Afghanistan, when I turned with some hes­i­ta­tion to my friend who had spent more than two years of his life fight­ing that war.

“Wow, that was the most anti-mil­i­tary movie I can re­mem­ber see­ing,” I said.

“Yeah,” he replied with­out pause. “That’s why I liked it.”

The movie, which de­buted Fri­day on Net­flix and I saw at an ear­lier screen­ing, is a fic­tion­al­ized ac­count of the events that led to the ouster of Gen. Stan­ley McChrys­tal from Afghanistan in 2010. (It is based on “The Op­er­a­tors,” a book by the late Michael Hast­ings, whose leg­endary and in­fa­mous pro­file of the war com­man­der for Rolling Stone mag­a­zine led Pres­i­dent Barack Obama to sum­mon the gen­eral back to Wash­ing­ton and fire him.) The movie seeks to ex­plain why a war that be­gan with prom­ise in the first months af­ter the Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks has de­volved into a bloody and ex­pen­sive quag­mire. “War Ma­chine” lays the blame un­flinch­ingly on the U.S. mil­i­tary.

As a jour­nal­ist, I was fix­ated on the many things the movie gets wrong. The gen­er­als, es­pe­cially the lightly cam­ou­flaged McChrys­tal char­ac­ter played by Brad Pitt, are car­toon­ish buf­foons ob­sessed with their lega­cies and con­temp­tu­ous of the U.S. civil­ians they serve. The en­listed troops are mostly an­gry and alone. The

Afghans are largely drug ad­dicts.

The real McChrys­tal was a smart, com­pas­sion­ate and po­lit­i­cally tone-deaf of­fi­cer who urged his troops to take on more risk to pro­tect civil­ians from harm. He em­pathized with Iraqis and Afghans and un­der­stood that they felt hu­mil­i­ated by the Amer­i­can oc­cu­pa­tions. Here’s McChrys­tal in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, de­scrib­ing a U.S. raid in which an Iraqi man is de­meaned in front of his ter­ri­fied 4-year-old son: “As I watched, I felt sick. I could feel in my own limbs and chest the shame and fury that must have been cours­ing through the fa­ther . . . . I thought, not for the first time: It would be easy for us to lose.”

Here’s the McChrys­tal char­ac­ter in “War Ma­chine”: “We’re here to build, to pro­tect, to sup­port the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion. To that end, we must avoid killing it at all costs. We can’t help them and kill them at the same time. It just ain’t hu­manly pos­si­ble.”

The first quote sounds like the gen­eral I met in Afghanistan. The sec­ond guy is a mo­ron.

But my friend, re­tired Army Lt. Col. Ja­son Dempsey, told me he was most grate­ful for the big things that “War Ma­chine” got right. The movie cap­tures the strange, in­tox­i­cat­ing and of­ten lonely bubble that most of Amer­ica’s four-star war com­man­ders in­habit. The McChrys­tal char­ac­ter is sur­rounded by aides who share his all-con­sum­ing be­lief in the mis­sion, and who are de­ter­mined to shield him from bad news and bur­nish his legacy. He’s cut off from his po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship in Wash­ing­ton and the de­press­ing re­al­ity that no one back home, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dent, sees his troops’ life-and-death strug­gle as a top pri­or­ity.

“I thought 40,000 sounded like a rea­son­able num­ber,” he mut­ters when the White House flips out over his re­quest for more sol­diers. The movie McChrys­tal is for­ever an­gling for a faceto-face meet­ing with Obama that comes only when the com­man­der in chief fires him.

“War Ma­chine” also nails the way Iraq and Afghanistan can seem like ab­strac­tions to those toil­ing away in­side the U.S. mil­i­tary’s sprawl­ing, air-con­di­tioned com­mand posts. Early in the movie, the gen­eral in­vites Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai, his feck­less part­ner, to ac­com­pany him on a he­li­copter tour of the coun­try. The Afghan leader im­me­di­ately rec­og­nizes the folly of the gen­eral’s lis­ten­ing tour. “Thank you for the in­vi­ta­tion,” he says. “It’s very gen­er­ous, but I’ve seen the coun­try.”

I asked Dempsey what he would have thought of the movie in 2009, when he and I first met in Konar prov­ince — one of those mid­dle-of-nowhere places on the AfghanistanPak­istan bor­der that was home to some of the fiercest fight­ing of the war. Back then, Dempsey was only a few months into his first com­bat de­ploy­ment, the Obama White House was in the mid­dle of a ma­jor strat­egy re­view, and McChrys­tal was be­ing hailed in the me­dia as a tire­less, cre­ative com­man­der who slept just four hours each night and ran seven miles each morn­ing. He was the guy was who go­ing to win the war.

“I think I would have hated it,” Dempsey told me. “This was our chance to take a crack at the war and do it right.” Even as he left Afghanistan in 2010, there was cause for op­ti­mism. U.S. troops were pour­ing into the coun­try and seemed to be tak­ing back ter­ri­tory from the Tal­iban.

Dempsey spent his sec­ond tour as an ad­viser to the Afghan army and said he started to have his doubts about the war. U.S. troops were train­ing Afghans in ba­sic tasks, such as marks­man­ship and bat­tle­field first aid, but they were mak­ing lit­tle progress in the long, hard work of build­ing a func­tion­ing army. The Afghan air force con­sisted of a hand­ful of he­li­copters that could not be kept in the air be­cause of a lack of train­ing and spare parts. Cor­rup­tion, theft and bribery were over­whelm­ing the con­tract­ing and lo­gis­tics sys­tems that fer­ried food, equipment and am­mu­ni­tion to the front lines.

Dempsey tried for months to get a cor­rupt and in­com­pe­tent Afghan bat­tal­ion com­man­der fired in 2012, only to learn two years later that the Afghan had re­turned to the job. By that point, Dempsey was long gone, his re­lief had cy­cled home, and the new Amer­i­can com­bat ad­viser had no clue that the Afghan of­fi­cer had been fired two years ear­lier. “I re­al­ized ev­ery­one was get­ting on the same tread­mill year af­ter year af­ter year,” Dempsey said.

Top mil­i­tary com­man­ders have been too quick to hang all the blame for their re­cent bat­tle­field fail­ures on civil­ians — and, as a coun­try, we’ve been too quick to ac­cept their ac­count: The State Depart­ment didn’t send enough aid and de­vel­op­ment ex­perts to se­cure hard-fought gains. The pres­i­dent lacked the will to stick it out and win in a place like Afghanistan. A dis­tracted and fickle Amer­i­can pub­lic never truly un­der­stood the stakes.

“War Ma­chine” of­fers a dif­fer­ent ver­dict: Amer­ica lost in Afghanistan be­cause its gen­er­als were over­taken by hubris, van­ity and the delu­sion that vic­tory was even pos­si­ble. Like all of the other ex­pla­na­tions, it cap­tures only a tiny frac­tion of the truth. But for Dempsey, it’s a wel­come cri­tique.

Like a lot of smart Army of­fi­cers, he wor­ries that the mil­i­tary has be­come largely off lim­its to crit­i­cism from a civil­ian pop­u­la­tion that is largely ig­no­rant of mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions and too ea­ger to gen­u­flect to the gen­er­als. To ques­tion their in­tel­li­gence, in­tegrity or com­mit­ment is some­how to im­pugn the sac­ri­fice of the men and women who fought and died on their or­ders. The net re­sult of this com­pact be­tween sol­dier and civil­ian is a “re­spect­ful in­dif­fer­ence,” Dempsey said, that has made praise for the mil­i­tary feel a bit like a Lit­tle League par­tic­i­pa­tion award. They are he­roes just for show­ing up.

The les­son hasn’t been lost on Pres­i­dent Trump, who has stocked the up­per ranks of his ad­min­is­tra­tion with ac­tive-duty and re­tired brass.

But, of course, not all sol­diers are he­roes. Be­fore the movie started, Dempsey and I were gos­sip­ing about the three colonels he served un­der in Afghanistan. All three were bounced from the ser­vice and stripped of rank for spec­tac­u­lar sex scan­dals. Two of them were pro­moted to gen­eral be­fore their mis­con­duct and poor judg­ment were ex­posed in the me­dia. These fig­ures aren’t nec­es­sar­ily rep­re­sen­ta­tive, but their sto­ries cer­tainly sug­gest some rot in the up­per ranks of the world’s most pow­er­ful fight­ing force. It’s not an or­ga­ni­za­tion that war­rants our un­ques­tion­ing trust.

The next day, Dempsey sent me an email that summed up his feel­ings about the film and quite pos­si­bly the war. “It’s an ab­surd movie about an ab­surd war,” he wrote. The real prob­lem with “War Ma­chine,” he added, is that it “might not be ab­surd enough.”


LEFT: Gen. Stan­ley McChrys­tal em­pathized with the Iraqis and Afghans he helped pro­tect. RIGHT: Brad Pitt’s char­ac­ter in “War Ma­chine,” by con­trast, has a skewed take on the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion: “We can’t help them and kill them at the same time. It just ain’t hu­manly pos­si­ble.”


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