War Machine:  Brad Pitt’s Warning on Hubris

Written by:  Pred
Published:  12 November 2022

In Iraq, he transformed special operations with what he called systemic negation of repetitive procedural practice or to the acronym-obsessed military, SNORPP. … For three and a half years, he’d been trying to explain SNORPP to the Washington Press Gallery.
Narrator, War Machine (2017)

There are several words that come to one’s mind when they dwell on Afghanistan.  The United States led a coalition for 20 years and all culminated with the tragic and hastily departure from Kabul Airport in August 2021.  Watching the scenes of people hanging off C17s created a wide range of emotions for a nation and people that invested personal treasure and pride to have it all wasted away.  Many movies, books, and documentaries have focused on the costs, the horrors, and the victories from an entire generation of military leaders and troops charged with building a stable country.  Dirty, gritty, and yet inspiring others, these films portrayed the mission’s cause and the difficult and complex military operations that seemed to produce nothing substantial.  Then there comes along a movie that has a different means at tackling the same themes of the series of mistakes that led to continual failure; this time through dark humor.

War Machine is a 2017 Netflix film staring Brad Pitt as 4-star Army General Glen McMahon as he takes command of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in 2009.  Following eight years of failed “state building,” stability operations, and counterinsurgency, McMahon takes command following a career of successes with the most recent being “the Surge” in Iraq.  McMahon, fueled with significant confidence in his own ability, consolidates the headquarters’ resources and streamlines operations with the intent of doing what no other general has done previously, “win” Afghanistan.  He concludes the way to “finish” the mission is to make Afghanistan a safe, secure, and prosperous country where democracy can flourish.

He is convinced his plan (he personally developed) will secure the long sought after objectives even although he is confronted with a reality that does not match his expectations.  U.S. State Department leaders, portrayed as self-serving and focused on their own political agendas, bicker amongst themselves.  Our foreign partners challenge his plan and assumptions while the Afghan leadership are ill-prepared or accepting of the necessary obligations to lead a society into a different future.  This treacherous environment provides many warning signs of what is to come as one of the Washington insiders mentions that his job is not to win but to turn the metrics in the right direction or just simply improve just a little from the previous leadership.  There seems to be no way to “win.”

Despite these challenges, McMahon is convinced his strategic, operational, and tactical plans will succeed.  The movie’s narrator comments that McMahon and his staff felt they were the most important people in the world and that they, being isolated in their own bubble, had the answers for these problems.  McMahon was known for superior organizational leadership and he begins using tools from the corporate business world to assist with reaching the military and political goals.  He hires a publicity consultant, leaks his Afghan assessment to the press, and completes a 60 Minutes interview all with the intentions of “winning.”  He just needed to get his story out to the public; which in turn, will lead the President and Congress to bless his full plan.  He arranges to have a Rolling Stone reporter write a story about his plan for success in Afghanistan.

Hubris is best defined as “excessive pride or self-confidence.”  McMahon’s staff follows him unflinchingly and never question his decisions.  Mrs. McMahon constantly tells him how proud of him she is even though she clearly feels neglected, forgotten about, and is alone.  Political and military leaders from around the world want to meet him and learn his wisdom with the occasional person challenging his reality.  His logic:  “A good leader lives by a set of rules.  A great leader knows when to break them.”

Little by little, the confidence wall cracks and the self-doubt enters as the reality on the ground.  McMahon witnesses first hand his plan meeting the Helmand Province as locals wished Americans away while house to house fighting killed civilians.  In his head, these responses only exacerbate the questioning in his mind.  In the end, he is fired after “badmouthing” the President and Vice President following the Rolling Stone article is published.   

War Machine is based upon the book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, the characters of General McMahon and his staff are based upon Army General Stanley McChrystal.  McChrystal is the type of person that will let you know he is the smartest person in the room and communicated this through his books and leadership style.  We all know what happened to McChrystal. 

This tragic tale reminds the viewer to constantly question their own assumptions and plans as no matter how wise one thinks they are, they do not know everything.  Situations may resemble previous experiences, but there are always differences, even the most subtle shades, in the social, political, and economic environments on macro and micro scales.  These shades will never allow one to fully appreciate nor understand what they think they see.  McMahon’s hubris though blinds him from reality as there are never any questions to his reality nor even the slightest hint or nudge to something different.  The atmosphere McMahon created around himself is one of admiration while believing in his own virtuous code of behavior and actions that he believed were superior to the others not in the military.  He was the enemy not in his own plan.

“Why don’t you do that SNORPP thing you did in Iraq?” says one of the State Department members.

Is it hubris or foolishness?  Imagine what would have happened if McMahon (really McChrystal) would have approached the situation differently.  Instead of thinking about how he could “win” Afghanistan, perhaps a different strategy allowing the U.S. and its allies to withdraw in 2009 instead of 12 years later.  His mind could never process being the one that purposefully “lost” Afghanistan or perhaps gain the media’s attention with information that could lead to a withdrawal.  McMahon may not have been the hero the military helped build in his mind, but he could have been the hero America needed to end the war on different terms.  He continued leading like the previous generals assuming the same results; the definition of insanity.

McMahon is correct.  A great leader knows when to break the rules to move ahead on things that they know is right.  This author’s corollary is “An exceptional leader knows when to disengage to reengage on terms for their own success.”  McMahon’s pride in his own abilities prevented him from seeing through the fog of war and changing the definition of his success.  He defined his entire personal grounds for success on the the success of his abilities in Afghanistan.  His wife comments that in the previous 8 years, they had only been together a total of 30 days a year.  Outside his prideful operations center lies the ruins of someone’e personality.  He has nothing of value if he “loses” and leaves his positions in failure; ultimately this was his fate.  

Brad Pitt does an amazing job with the details in developing the character.  The specific mannerisms in McMahon’s running gate, his specific gruff voice and eye squinting, and the civilian dress that can best be described as the “FGO Starter Kit.”  He may not have the build that would best describe a Ranger, but Pitt makes the viewer understand how career military officers tend to be eccentric in their own manner.  These are the traits that most of the U.S. never gets to see of the people they have placed their faith.

That is the tragic story of War Machine.  Hubris prevented McMahon from being Glen.