The True Story of ‘War Machine'

Credit: Courtesy Netflix

On June 23, 2010 President Barack Obama asked General Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, to resign. A day earlier, Rolling Stone had released a profile of McChrystal. In the story, written by the late journalist Michael Hastings, McChrystal and several of his key advisors had spoken candidly about their frustrations with the White House’s approach to Afghanistan. Not only did the story capture McChrystal’s team publicly disparaging the White House, it offered a rare fly-on-the-wall perspective on how the country’s most powerful leaders were thinking about the longest running war in U.S. history.

Now a new Netflix film, War Machine, written and directed by David Michôd and based on Hastings’ book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, satirizes these heavy-hitting generals and their logic. Brad Pitt stars as Gen. Glen McMahon, a character inspired by McChrystal. Men’s Journal spoke with Michôd about the never-ending war in Afghanistan, why the Rolling Stone story may have been the last straw in an already doomed relationship, and whether or not he believes the conspiracy theorists that Hastings was assassinated by the CIA.

How did you become interested in the war in Afghanistan?

This war has now been running for more than 16 years, and cost an enormous amount in blood and treasure. I wanted to understand how it was that as a society we were capable of continuing to justify the expenditure. How was the war being propped up? And how was it that we seem to collectively buy into this grand illusion?

You’ve said that reading Hastings’ book gave you a different view of the war in Afghanistan. What did it show you that you hadn’t seen before?

It gave me a way in. All of the reading I had been doing about these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the search for a movie, none of it made any sense. These endeavors seem to be built on the back of delusion, an attempt to achieve something militarily that was always inevitably going to be impossible. But I couldn’t understand why. I couldn’t understand how this was happening — how an institution run by presumably smart and very capable people could be engaged in activities that seemed so delusional. Michael’s book was the first thing I had read that unpacked the human behavior of the architects of these great military enterprises.

Why did you change Stanley McChrystal’s name to Glen McMahon?

I wanted the movie to be about something larger than just the story of one man. And I certainly didn’t want the movie to become a Stanley McChrystal biopic. I also didn’t want it to feel like it was isolated to one particular event and one man or group of guys. To me, it was always about the entire institution. Whatever hubris and ambition that lies at the center of the movie, to me, wasn’t peculiar to these guys. It is somehow in the DNA of the power of this institution.

What was it about these characters that fascinated you?

The vanity, ambition, and hubris that result from reaching the top of a ladder such as this one are not peculiar to the military. I think so many of us are climbing ladders of our own personal aspirations. What is terrifying are the ways in which the consequences of that vanity and ambition in an institution as powerful as the military can be so catastrophic.

Why do you think McChrystal spoke with Michael?

When you are losing your grip on a war, with seemingly no end, it doesn’t surprise me that you want to do whatever you can to rally and reaffirm popular support for your efforts. That can sometimes mean talking to people from all walks of life. But really, when you look at Michael’s story, and you look at what those guys were saying and doing, there are clear lapses of judgement but there aren’t any grand criminal acts being committed. It was very important that the film is not saying, "The only reason these guys failed is because they talked to a Rolling Stone reporter." The Rolling Stone story was simply the last nail in a coffin that had already been built.

What did that coffin look like?

In order to continue fighting this war, the institution, or these guys, generally needed to start to engage in the delusion of counterinsurgency. The delusion of the belief that they could bring peace and goodness to this country by way of a gigantic foreign occupation and using all of the assets of a terrifying military arsenal. The endeavor of the guys in this movie was always going to fail. But how was it going to finally fail was the last question.

What do you think of the conspiracy theory that Michael Hastings was killed by the CIA?
I don’t really fall anywhere. You know, the world is a crazy place and Michael was a complicated guy. And so I haven’t even come close to drawing any conclusions of my own.