It plays like a mixtape of the greatest hits, failures, and disputes of the past half century of American wars, but the sobering part of a new documentary, American War Generals, is its undeniable relevance to right now.
The two-hour film, which airs on the National Geographic Channel September 14, had its Washington premiere Monday at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on Constitution Avenue. Among the invited audience of 700 were many of the Army generals featured in the film, including Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry in Desert Storm, former ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark, and David Petraeus, the former CIA director who was also commander of the US Central Command.
Produced by husband-and-wife team Peter Bergen and Tresha Mabile, the film devotes most of its time to Afghanistan and Iraq, citing sobering statistics on American and Iraqi deaths (4,489 and more than 150,000, respectively) and the cost to US taxpayers (more than $2 trillion). Violence in Iraq in 2014, the film claims, is at its highest since 2008.
But there are other names of wars that are familiar and chill the soul—Vietnam, the Cold War, Desert Storm—and that, even when seemingly successful, came at a high cost. “The cost of war is something, as a leader, you can never allow yourself to forget,” says former Iraq War commander General George Casey as he’s shown walking among the graves of his soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery.
Not at the party was retired General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan whose resignation was demanded by President Obama after McChrystal gave a too-candid interview (for one thing, mocking Vice President Biden) to Rolling Stone in 2010.
In the film, McChrystal, in a sports shirt, talks about the episode. “I read the article. As soon as I read it, I knew the import. I knew this was going to take off.” He was immediately called to Washington and the White House, where the President accepted his resignation. Fifteen minutes later, “in the car I’m thinking, what just happened? My career just ended. Everything I believe in me is in question.”
McChrystal is no less candid in his assessment of the overall Iraq war effort. “The invasion of Iraq, I don’t think, can be judged any other way than as a mistake,” he says, recalling the loss of American, Iraqi, and other lives. “If we looked at the distrust that it created, or the loss of trust, around the world for America, I don’t think a rational person would ever have said, ‘We’ll do that.’”
Bergen cited Barry McCaffrey as also particularly “unedited” in his interview remarks. McCaffery recalls the initial invasion of Iraq and spares no blame. “I think taking down Saddam was actually the right thing to do,” he says. “Screwing up the military operation was not. So I have a permanent sense of hatred for what Secretary [Donald] Rumseld [did], in particular.” We asked Bergen whether it was easy to get these powerful and often guarded military men to talk. “No,” he said, “but if it was easy we wouldn’t do it, would we?”
Bergen posed for pictures and mingled for a while with guests, which included National Geographic executives, members of Congress, diplomats, and a group the guest list identified as “elite media,” including Ed Henry of Fox News, Jim Avila of ABC News, Jonathan Martin of Politico, Eleanor Clift of Daily Beast, and Frances Townsend and Brianna Keilar of CNN.*
*This post has been updated from a previous version.
Find Carol Ross Joynt on Twitter at @caroljoynt.