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How Hollywood Keeps Getting Afghanistan Wrong

Hollywood loves to make war movies. Some are resoundingly patriotic and optimistic, despite the carnage, while others are frank about the ambiguity of American wars and even about their uselessness. In the second category, for example, The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), descends into meaningless death in a forlorn war. William Holden’s downed Navy fighter pilot, despite having endured a stirring speech by his carrier commander about the domino theory, understands in a ditch in Korea that his bombing raids and his impending death will have served no purpose. Vietnam war films tend to follow this pattern in Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). The Deer Hunter (1978), is really more about life at home than about the war itself. Thus it can portray North Vietnamese soldiers as cardboard sadists.

Afghanistan has presented Hollywood, as it has the American people, with a tremendously difficult if not impossible task. Fighting in Afghanistan has pulled the public here from one extreme to the other. When the mujahedin battled the Soviet army from 1979 to 1989, Afghan fighters were heroes in the U.S. because they killed our most dangerous enemy, the “communists.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, then President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, was famously photographed in Pakistan pointing a rifle across the Khyber Pass at Afghanistan–i.e., at Soviet forces – in late 1979. Arming the Afghan opposition to the Soviets became one of Mr. Brzezinski’s most cherished causes. It seems to be fake news that he was photographed on site with Osama bin Laden in 1981, but certainly Washington’s support for the Afghan “insurgency” helped create Al Qaeda.

The Russian film 9-aya Rota (9th Company, 2005) portrayed the useless sacrifices of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. But it hardly evokes the lives of Afghans themselves; it is about what happened to Russian troops in the fighting. For the most part, they die in the film. Patterned after Full Metal Jacket, the Russian version stands quite well on its own. But it has had virtually no impact in the U.S. It involves a way of looking at combat in Afghanistan that is broadly foreign to American thinking: it humanizes Russians.

In 2007, already nearly six years into American military operations in Afghanistan, the successful film Charlie Wilson’s War appeared. Based on a “true story” from the 1980s, the movie stars Tom Hanks as a charming and lecherous Democratic congressman from East Texas, with support in various senses from Julia Roberts as a wealthy anti-communist. Wilson “abused government privileges to travel the world first class with former beauty queens who had earned such titles as Miss Sea and Ski,” as reported in Ghost Wars.  The movie relates Wilson’s efforts in the ‘80s to supply Stinger portable ground-to-air missiles to the Afghan resistance. According to the film and a banner displayed at a CIA gathering toward the end of the movie, “Charlie Did It!” Screen after screen displays numbers of Soviet aircraft, especially helicopters, brought down by the mujahedin in 1986-87. The celebrants of this success in the U.S. are convinced, and the film tries hard to persuade us, that the Stingers made the Soviet war in Afghanistan too costly; that price persuaded the Kremlin to withdraw; and the exit in turn demoralized and weakened the USSR so much that communism fell. It all becomes a neat package orchestrated by a couple of colorful rogues, one a loose cannon in the CIA. That Hanks’s character and the real Charlie Wilson had some severe flaws just make his success in the tale all the more lovably American.

Fact check: Mikhail Gorbachev had decided by the time he became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in April 1985 that his country’s war in Afghanistan had to end. Gorbachev’s chief problems with the exit were resistance from his military leaders, who hated the idea that they would lose and that the soldiers already dead gave their lives for nothing. That must sound familiar from our war in Vietnam. 13,310 Soviet troops died in Afghanistan (Out of Afghanistan, 72), a pretty good kill ratio, however, if we accept estimates of 1-2 million Afghans slain. Gorbachev wanted to devote attention to internal reform and to arms control agreements; the Afghan war greatly hampered those efforts. By October 1985, however, Gorbachev had convinced enough of his circle that withdrawal was desirable, even necessary; the Politburo then passed a resolution approving the exit in principle. Soviet troops began to leave in May of 1988, completing their departure in February 1989.

The role of the Stingers in prompting the exit is controversial. Soviet officials claimed after their war that the missiles prolonged the fighting, as the USSR’s tech industry and generals clamored for a chance to figure out how to defeat the new weapon. Ronald Krueger of the Defense Intelligence Agency said that the idea of the Stinger, “like everything else” American aid to the Mujahedin accomplished, “was to raise the costs to the Russians.” American officials believed almost up until the announcement in February 1988 that the Soviet forces would not withdraw, that they could not be defeated there, and that they would remain indefinitely.

Then there was the U.S. Stinger buy-back program, begun with the fear that terrorists would use the missiles to shoot down airliners. Hugely costly and ineffective, that is a story for another day.

Our own six years of fighting in Afghanistan before the movie touting Wilson’s heroics reached theaters were not enough to make Americans sick of intervention there. But by the release of The War Machine in late May, public sentiment had turned, or turned off. Polls show American support and approval for our Afghan war gone up and down over the years; 90 percent or more approved of the initial bombing and invasion in 2001. But a CBS poll released in March of 2012 showed that 69 percent of respondents said we should not be involved. Only 23 percent answered that we “were doing the right thing.” Writing in the Atlantic for June 24, 2015, Dominic Tierney describes Afghanistan as a forgotten war. Virtually no polls were held about the conflict in 2015. The “Mother of All Bombs,” dropped ostensibly on ISIS fighters in Afghanistan in April, garnered attention here only because of the power of the weapon. Photos of its impact show a big hole in the ground and blackened trees, which seems to sum up both our military efforts on site and the views of the War Machine.

Now approaching its sixteenth anniversary, and having secured some years ago the crown as America’s longest war, the conflict in Afghanistan disintegrated into stalemate within months of our initial attack in late 2001. Politically, of course, we had to attack someone after 9/11. But to think that we could “win” in Afghanistan, after failures by the British in the nineteenth century and the Soviets in the 1980s, and our own loss in Vietnam, was hubris unchained. This is one of the basic points that Brad Pitt’s cinematic endeavor, War Machine, a Netflix original picture starring himself, tries to convey.

Pitt’s General McMahon, patterned after General Stanley McCrystal, is an intelligent man who firmly believes he knows the key to success in Afghanistan. His doctrine, not exactly new, is that U.S. forces must secure the country, deter the insurgents without killing many of them, and winning civilians over to support of the U.S. and the government in Kabul by building – his mantra – schools and roads and creating jobs. But McMahon/McChrystal does not get the full 40,000 troops he requests from the Obama administration in 2009; he only gets 30,000. With the goal of coaxing more soldiers from NATO allies, McMahon goes to Paris and Berlin. While in the latter city, he gives a presentation to Bundestag members. He tells them that if NATO forces face 10 insurgents and kill 2 of them, 8 are left – right? The deputies nod. “Wrong,” he almost yells. If we kill 2, their friends and relatives react badly and join the opposition. 10-2 equals 20 insurgents. A Bundestag member then rises and accuses McMahon of being delusional and acting for the good of his own career and ego.

Here the film misses a great chance to nail its point. Logically, the next speech should have been from another deputy to the effect that, “General, by your own arithmetic, you have just proven why you can never win in Afghanistan.” And indeed, we cannot, even if we could conceive of what victory there would look like.

Brad Pitt has an unenviable role: he must strut around and bellow like a cartoon general. Even when running for exercise, he keeps his arms stiff. His left hand seems permanently withered into a set of bent claws. This posture departs somewhat from the real McChrystal, as he appears in a TED broadcast from March of 2011, where he seems pretty relaxed. Yet overall, the depiction in the film of McChrystal as a man determined to be down to earth (“Let’s find the least Gucci place in Paris”) and a buddy to his men while using the latest weapons and electronic communications, stays close to the man as detailed in the crucial article in Rolling Stone by Michael Hastings, “The Runaway General: The Profile That Brought Down McChrystal.” At the same time, Pitt must try to show the general’s utter confidence in his strategy. That doesn’t work very well. The film spends too much time on his persona and his forgettable sidekicks, too little on the contradictions of American intervention. But eventually it gets basic issues across reasonably well. The title War Machine – not the story of an individual general – finally resonates effectively; McMahon is fired by Obama after Hastings’s article appears, but the film ends with another proud commander strutting onto the scene, full of the same determination that emanated from McMahon at first.

In a way, the mujahedin have come full circle in these two films. For Charlie Wilson, they are heroes fighting an evil, smug, nearly faceless enemy, the Soviet army. For Brad Pitt, they are victims of an American policy doomed from the start. Perhaps, flawed as it is, War Machine may rekindle some interest and doubt about our fighting in Afghanistan.

Not gonna happen in the American military. In February, General John Nicholson, having completed yet another review of the situation there, said that thousands of more troops are necessary to break the “stalemate” with the Taliban. He should read a little more history and spend two hours watching War Machine. Maybe he could get Donald Trump to watch with him.