The debate about military interventions has been trapped in amber for years now. Where, when, and why we should intervene in conflicts—whether in Central Africa, Eastern Europe or the Middle East, whether for regime change, for the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), or for humanitarian aid—are almost forgotten topics. The debate has been stuck in place because the lingering engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced little in the way of results that voters can understand or appreciate, discrediting for many even the idea of an interventionist foreign policy. Not even ongoing humanitarian crises in places like Syria and Yemen have managed to shift the debate out of its present stalemate.
Part of the reason the debate has frozen in place is that the media and our political leaders all too often have done a poor job reporting on conflicts and explaining the costs and benefits of intervening in them. It’s on this note that we might consider looking to film. Two recent productions, in particular—War Machine (2017) and A Private War (2018)—offer fresh perspectives on conflicts and why we choose to get involved with them. Both are clear-eyed in their assessments of the mistakes intervening powers have made in recent years, but perhaps most importantly both offer portraits of war that are much more complex than one finds in the crowd-pleasing battlefield epics that have long been Hollywood’s standard fare when it comes to depictions of war.
To be sure, neither of these films were particularly acclaimed at the time of their release. War Machine received spectacularly low ratings, and film reviewers almost unanimously considered it a disaster. A Netflix production launched in only a few select cinemas, War Machine is a political satire based on The Operators, Michael Hastings’ book, expanded from his famous Rolling Stone article, about General Stanley McChrystal’s mandate as commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. With a generous budget of $60 million, the film was produced and financed through a multiyear partnership between New Regency and Brad Pitt’s Plan B after their rousingly successful partnership in the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave.
Loosely hewing to the Hastings account, War Machine follows four-star general Glen McMahon—a thinly fictionalized version of McChrystal whose name was chosen to sound macho (“McMan”)—from his successful rescue of the Iraq counter-insurgency mission to his selection by President Obama to manage the U.S. withdrawal, with as much political grace as possible, from Afghanistan. As the film shows of McMahon, McChrystal viewed Afghanistan as the defining moment of his career and requested a troop surge. The lack of political support he subsequently received from the Obama Administration motivated him to agree to the infamous Rolling Stone interview that abruptly torpedoed his career.
Helmed by the young and acclaimed Australian director David Michôd, War Machine received bad reviews mainly because, as Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian noted, it “doesn’t know what it wants to be.” A war movie? A satire? Or something else entirely? He also faulted it for having a hero who “learns nothing,” portrayed by Pitt in a way that “leaves you unsure whether he is being celebrated or satirized.”
But far from being an “irrelevant, alpha-male misfire,” as another reviewer put it, War Machine’s value stems precisely from the complexity of its portrait. Michôd’s intention wasn’t to make a film that could be easily slotted in to a pre-defined film category or genre. It is a satire based on a realistic and contemporary war scenario, something that has not been so far tried in quite this way. It shows the ISAF mission through an unflattering but honest lens. Pitt’s General McMahon fits the stereotype of an American general: stiff in appearance, narrow in thinking, and deliberately ignorant of cultural differences. He frequently vents his frustrations with his Western alliance partners: “The entire base is rolling with Eurosexuals who are so drunk they can’t even stand up.” Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the de jure ruler of a de facto foreign-ruled country, hits all the right comedic notes. McMahon tells him all about the “new” direction he wants to take the ISAF mission, consisting of “building Afghanistan.” “I see. I see… Sounds a lot like the old direction,” Kingsley deadpans. Michôd likewise hits all the right notes in the portrayal of other aspects of the war: European coalition forces are shown as cooperative and compliant but also deeply skeptical about the purpose of their mission on the ground. Tilda Swinton offers a beautiful performance as a German politician who questions the very spirit of the ISAF mission and puts the over-confident American general on the spot.
War Machine is thus both funny and tragic, realistic and overstated. If it comes across as contradictory and uncertain of the kind of film it’s supposed to be, that’s only because Afghanistan is uncertain of the kind of war it’s supposed to be. The reason for the film’s bad reviews stem from the fact that it was too niche for the critics. Coming at the film as someone who not only worked in NATO with American soldiers and Western European partners, but also in the presidential administration of one of the countries that contributed to Afghanistan mission at the time of McChrystal’s mandate, I found the film’s farcical presentation of ISAF uncomfortably, even painfully, true to life. Its reflection of the complexities in understanding contemporary conflict is symbolized in Pitt’s depiction of McMahon as thoughtlessly saluting Käthe Kollwitz’s pietà sculpture of a mother holding her dying soldier son (controversial in Germany because it could be interpreted as glorifying the military).
War Machine’s critical left-wing narrator, Sean Cullen, a Rolling Stone journalist based on Hastings, confronts the general’s attempts to explain counterinsurgency to both political audiences and soldiers on the ground. McMahon struggles to explain the paradoxes and intricacies of counter-insurgency—the art of winning over a population while not getting killed by insurgents—to a wide audience. The film doesn’t shy away from confronting the American military leader’s clichés. “You boys are the only thing that counts. If it doesn’t happen here it doesn’t happen,” McMahon tells some assembled U.S. troops. “What doesn’t happen?” asks a beleaguered young soldier. “It, son,” says Pitt, menacingly. “Okay, thank you sir,” says the soldier as he shrinks back into the ranks. German politicians sharply question McMahon’s motives: “As an elected representative of the people of Germany it is my job to ensure that the personal ambitions of those who serve those people are kept in check.”
To their credit, Michôd and Pitt aren’t afraid to be blunt about Washington and its foibles and double standards. A U.S. Embassy official tells General McMahon that they suspect Karzai is “a drug addict” who “eliminated his chief opponent in this election by spreading a pretty vicious homosexual rumor,” and whose “brother is a straight-up criminal warlord.” McMahon yells: “Oh come on, Pat. . . . How is Washington any different?” The General is also critical of the U.S. media: “Let’s lose Fox News. Won’t do as any good to have a bunch of angry perverts yelling at us all day.” The allies and the absurdities that come with multi-coalition operations come in for their fair share of criticism as well: “Austria has only two guys here. . . . This country won’t fight at night. That country won’t fight in the snow” is a statement that sums up coalition operational problems. “The good news is Berlin will give us the troops,” says McMahon while touring Berlin in search of additional support for the mission. “The bad news is they won’t be able to leave the base.”
Perhaps War Machine was just too hard a pill for critics and audiences to swallow. It is a movie about a soldier who talks about fighting in a war but never actually does it—a soldier who is forced by civilian leaders to take over a civilian leadership role. (In two hours of runtime, less than ten minutes are devoted to battle scenes or action set pieces.) Moreover, it spreads itself thin ideologically, in that it criticizes everyone: the U.S. military, U.S. and allied civilian leadership, the local population, and the meta-narrative of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism itself. War Machine just challenges too many of our cherished preconceptions about war and interventionism to please anyone, much less everyone.
While War Machine is a film about a warrior forced to operate in civilian settings, A Private War is a drama about a civilian operating in the midst of a harrowing war. The film is based on a 2012 Vanity Fair profile of Marie Colvin, the renowned combat journalist who died in the Homs siege in Syria. A Private War also contrasts War Machine in that it conveys Colvin’s case for the ongoing need for humanitarian intervention. It was thanks to her heroic efforts that the world had proof of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s attacks on civilians in 2011. With a screenplay by Arash Amel (Grace of Monaco), the film was directed by Matthew Heinemann, who has had prior success as a director of documentary films. Heinemann’s past works also focused on international conflict: Cartel Land (2015) offers a dizzying account of the Mexican drug trade; City of Ghosts (2017) tells the story of the Syrian media activist group Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered.
A Private War received far better reviews than War Machine, despite being ostentatiously conventional and having little of the subtlety or complexity of the latter. It is yet another entry in the catalogue of films like Zero Dark Thirty and Testament of Truth, depicting women making heroic and magnificent contributions to peace and security. (Better late than never, I guess.) It also focuses too much on her personality, attributing Colvin’s actions to her addiction to thrill-seeking rather than her boundless courage to document conflicts in places even Western militaries fear to tread. A Private War takes us briefly through the journalist’s experiences in Sri Lanka and more extensively through Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Heinemann’s shots of Colvin’s in shattered buildings and among dying civilians are offered without moralistic commentary, letting viewers see for themselves how the elderly, women, and children are being slaughtered every day.
The value of A Private War is inherent in its subject: a war journalist who had the courage to go where no one else dared to go, who dedicated her life to showing the world that the “national interest” is not truly served when human rights are violated and civilians are not protected. This is vital work in a time when isolationist and populist tendencies in the Western world will hide humanitarian catastrophes behind a veil of ignorance. While statistics may show us that the world is becoming safer by the decade, and that fewer and fewer people are dying as a result of violence, conflicts like those in Syria and Yemen are ongoing and won’t be the last to generate dilemmas surrounding humanitarian interventions.
Western voters’ aversion to military action for humanitarian reasons has in large part been driven by their governments’ failure both to provide accurate and comprehensive analyses of humanitarian crises and to explain reasons for and costs of intervening in them. In opinion polls, majorities of German voters oppose military intervention to defend not just Ukraine but fellow NATO members as well, and they favor the use of troops in humanitarian interventions—but only as long as there’s no chance that they will either shoot or be shot at. This paradoxical notion—that the only situations in which Germans would approve of the use of force are situations in which the use of force is unnecessary—is but one of many examples of Western governments’ failures to honestly and prudently make the case for interventions. While pacifist sentiments run less strongly in other Western countries, it should surprise no one that no coalition arose even after Syria’s chemical weapons attacks. Even in France, whose forces are currently present in Syria, the majority disagree with the intervention and only 36 percent were in favor of the Libyan intervention. Overall, only 22 percent Europeans are in favor of a Syrian intervention. As for Yemen, the media have neither the resources nor the inclination to cover that war, leaving dramatic presentations and documentary films as one of the few ways Western publics are exposed to news about that conflict.
Meanwhile, when news media do cover such conflicts, they tend to focus, to the exclusion of all else, on stories of civilian suffering or the trauma experienced by returning soldiers. Recently, a high-level Bundeswehr staff lamented this fact, encouraging me to watch the Norwegian television drama Nobel (available on Netflix), which provides a much more balanced and multi-dimensional portrayal of soldiers’ homecomings.
This blind spot, perhaps, is why film reviewers failed to appreciate the complex portrait presented by these two films. A Private War shows us the dark side of humanity to which Western governments, publics, and media all too often turn a blind eye. War Machine shows us the enormous gulf between Western military capabilities and the need to win over hearts and minds in war-torn societies. Both films challenge our preconceptions about conflicts and our reasons for intervening in them, and invite us to renew a moribund debate.