President Barack Obama requested General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan at the time, to retire on June 23, 2010. A feature of McChrystal had been published in Rolling Stone the day before. McChrystal and some of his top advisers spoke honestly about their displeasure with the White House’s approach to Afghanistan in the report, which was authored by the late journalist Michael Hastings. Not only did the report catch McChrystal’s team openly criticizing the White House, but it also provided a rare inside look at how the country’s most powerful commanders were thinking about the country’s longest-running war.
Now, David Michôd‘s new Netflix film War Machine, based on Hastings’ book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, satirizes these hard-hitting generals and their rationale. Brad Pitt plays Gen. Glen McMahon, a figure based on General Stanley McChrystal. Michôd spoke with Men’s Journal on the never-ending war in Afghanistan, why the Rolling Stone piece may have been the final straw in an already doomed relationship, and whether or not he believes Hastings was slain by the CIA.
How did you get interested in Afghanistan’s war?
This battle has lasted more than 16 years and cost a staggering amount of life and cash. I wanted to know how we could continue to justify the expense as a society. What was the strategy for keeping the battle going? And how did we all seem to believe in this enormous illusion at the same time?
You’ve stated that reading Hastings’ book changed your perspective on the Afghan conflict. What did it reveal to you that you hadn’t previously noticed?
It provided me with a route. In my hunt for a movie, I had done a lot of reading on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and none of it made sense. These activities appear to be based on illusion, an attempt to militarily achieve something that was always going to be unattainable. However, I couldn’t figure out why. I couldn’t comprehend how this could be occurring – how an institution managed by allegedly intelligent and capable individuals could be involved in such irrational behaviors. Michael’s book was the first book I’d read that explained the human psychology of the people who designed these massive military projects.
What was the reasoning for changing Stanley McChrystal’s name to Glen McMahon?
I wanted the film to be about something bigger than simply one man’s tale. I also didn’t want the film to turn into a Stanley McChrystal biography. I didn’t want it to seem like it was limited to a single event or a single individual or group of men. It was always about the institution as a whole to me. To me, the vanity and ambition at the heart of the film weren’t unique to these characters. It’s ingrained in the DNA of this institution’s authority.
What was it about these people that drew you in?
The pride, ambition, and arrogance that come with reaching the top of a ladder-like this aren’t exclusive to the military. So many of us, I believe, are climbing ladders of our own personal ambitions. What’s alarming is how disastrous the implications of such vanity and ambition in such a strong institution as the military can be.
Why do you believe McChrystal had a conversation with Michael?
When you’re losing control of a conflict that appears to have no end in sight, it’s understandable that you’d want to do all you can to gather and reaffirm public support for your efforts. It may be necessary to speak with folks from many walks of life at times. But, when you look at Michael‘s tale and what those individuals were saying and doing, there are obvious failures in judgment, but no great criminal actions are being perpetrated. “The only reason these people failed is that they talked to a Rolling Stone reporter,” the film does not state. The Rolling Stones’ tale was merely the last nail in an already-built coffin.
What was the shape of that coffin?
In order to keep waging this war, the institution, or these men, needed to start engaging in counterinsurgency deception. The misconception is that they could bring peace and goodness to this country by invading it and occupying it with all the resources of a fearsome military arsenal. The boys’ attempt in this film was always doomed to fail. But, most importantly, how was it going to collapse in the end?
What are your thoughts on the CIA’s alleged assassination of Michael Hastings?
I don’t seem to fit in anywhere. The world is a strange place, and Michael was a difficult individual. As a result, I haven’t even attempted to reach any conclusions of my own.