Cogs in the War Machine

By Tim Winterstein

The war machine will take what you have to give, and when you’re used up, it will discard you—at least if you’re General Glen McMahon or any of the other fictional generals who head up the combined allied troops in Afghanistan. War Machine (streaming on Netflix) is comedic, but its underlying themes are deadly serious and maybe even tragic. A veteran (or someone else who knows more than I do about inner workings of the military) could probably point out the moments at which this film touches reality, in the political machinations or the stupidity of how some military operations are decided and carried out.

General McMahon, played with pathos by Brad Pitt, is called up to do what he did in Iraq and win a war that no one else seems to be able to win. Everyone but him and his team seems to know it’s an unwinnable fight, but he’s undeterred. He’s going to do his job and, as he tells the ambassador, he’s going to win the war or lose it. Alan Ruck’s cynical and savvy ambassador responds that he has to “call bulls**t on that.” He says there won’t be any parades after this war. The best McMahon can hope for is to have slightly better graphs than the last guy. (Incidentally, Alan Ruck is in one of my favorite short films ever, Destroyer.)

There’s a lot to the 120 minutes-plus of this film. None of the time is wasted. It does a great job of highlighting the seeming meaningless, endlessness, and irrationality of modern warfare. In a nice move, the place of the narrator (whose name and significance the viewer doesn’t discover until at least halfway through the film) is the nexus on which the plot turns. The movie is alternately hilarious and despair-inducing.

But the significance of McMahon’s untenable position is not confined to the military. There are very few jobs in this world that are not bound on multiple sides by contradictory demands and requirements. McMahon is caught between his training, his responsibilities to the people of Afghanistan, and the demands of both military and civilian superiors.

The feeling of frustration that McMahon, for the most part, keeps silent is expressed by the Marine corporal, Billy Cole, who has no time for protocol and awards for “courageous restraint.” He simply wants to do his job, and he can’t understand why he’s being prevented from doing it. In this way, he acts as McMahon’s true inner voice, though McMahon keeps it mostly to himself because of his four stars.

What is the point of their training if the soldiers are kept from utilizing their skills? What is the point of being brought in as the commanding officer if he can’t do what his experience dictates he should do? The conflicting motivations of the superiors, who each have their own turf to protect (and their own superiors to whom they must answer), put McMahon in an impossible situation. And that’s even before he has to deal with the people, win their “hearts and minds,” and help them attain freedom—a freedom that they apparently do not want. What they do want is for McMahon and his soldiers to get out of their country.

Slowly, McMahon comes to see just how much of a dead end his job in Afghanistan is. Beside whatever similarity to the actual situation in Afghanistan is contained in the film’s portrayal, the center of this film is General McMahon’s inability to escape the labyrinth of where his job has landed him. Everything he’s done, every way he’s been prepared and prepared himself, every experience, every decision he’s made—where has it gotten him? He isn’t stupid; he sees the writing on the wall. But his post-military leadership lecture shows him looking completely lost. He embodies the futility of the modern counter-insurgency type of warfare.

Anyone who’s had to deal with conflicting demands from people who believe themselves to have the primary and most valid points of view, anyone whose job has involved navigating an entrenched bureaucracy, anyone who feels that his training is being stymied by the actual demands of a particular job, anyone whose intentions are frustrated by the specifics on the ground will find a kindred spirit in Glen McMahon. His exaggerated squint and gait can’t disguise the serious issues with which War Machine deals. Maybe we’re all, finally, cogs in machines not of our own making.

But we’re left with the question: What will we do with that knowledge and the frustrations of reality? Will it get the best of us? And is that the point? Or should we try to avoid the implications of such thinking and push on with some other sense of significance? The answer means the difference between the despair of ultimate frustration and the ability to work with what we’ve been given, knowing that the ultimate meaning comes from somewhere outside the specific work. It brings us right up to the conclusion of 1 Corinthians 15 and whether (or not) we will find in the end that our labor is anything other than empty and worthless.