The predominant feeling one gets coming off a weekend reading Michael Hastings’ The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan is not outrage, nor gleeful satisfaction in seeing everything one suspects about this rotten war confirmed in tawdry black and white detail and in the rise and fall of one of the most celebrated generals in a generation.
The overwhelming feeling is, well, sadness.
More on that in a minute.
Hastings is the Rolling Stone reporter whose July 2010 profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then-commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, sank the man’s career and put celebrated Gen. David Petraeus in charge of the war — all within 48 hours of “The Runaway General’s” auspicious release.
Hastings, 31, drew a ton of criticism for the profile, mostly from Washington military types and mainstream reporters with a fondness for high-level access, who thought McChrystal and his team had been “betrayed” by Hastings. That McChrystal and his top aides would let fly countless zingers, insults and questionable asides about not only the President of the United States, but top cabinet officials, statesmen, other generals, and foreign dignitaries and leaders “on the record” was unbelievable.
The young hotshot reporter must have broken the ground rules somewhere to have collected such meaty — and damning — fodder for his story, right?
Turns out, according to The Operators, he was pretty surprised that Team McChrystal (ironically they had taken to calling themselves Team America, after the dark satire of the same name) had been so candid and “freewheeling” in their exchanges with him, too.
“When I arrived in Paris, Duncan (Boothby) (McChrystal’s top civilian media adviser) repeatedly dismissed the idea of ground rules, telling me it wasn’t the way the team did things. McChrystal would also tell me he wasn’t ‘going to tell me how to write my story.’ In fact, McChrystal and his staff requested to go off the record only twice when it came time to write my story and that I continue to honor to this day.”
The rest, as we say, is history. Hastings went for a ride in which, like some Hollywood movie, McChrystal was revealed to him in direct interviews and through the eyes of his loyal Team America, a god, while everyone else, particularly the civilian edifice and diplomatic machinery he was forced to work with, were merely obstacles on the way to winning the war.
What Hastings was able to capture by resisting the constant urge to “protect” his subjects — who seemed, honestly, to be rather convivial, if not naive when it came to Hastings’ presence — was not just that McChrystal and his team thought Obama an empty shirt, Afghan President Hamid Karzai a fool and diplomat Richard Holbrooke an annoying gasbag, but the starkest evidence of the breakdown in civilian-military relations to date. The military was indeed a planet onto its own. The politics from all corners, dizzying.
Team America drinks hard. They brag, they boast, they cuss. They swap stories about female reporters who flash their breasts to get an exclusive, another who allegedly tells Boothby to cup her breast implants on a Blackhawk helicopter ride. They talk cynically about the war one minute, hopelessly romantic about their mission the next.
Their “boss” is like Led Zeppelin and they, the ever-faithful handlers and road crew. At times, Hastings felt like his prototype, Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe, who wrote and directed the semi-autobiographical movie Almost Famous, about a young writer who gets co-opted by rock stars only to disappoint them by publishing a truthful, if unflattering account of their (mis)adventures.
“I’d enjoyed the movie, but my experience as a reporter had led me to believe that there wasn’t always a happy ending if you wrote about people with brutal honesty,” Hastings wrote. He would soon find out how right he was.
He traveled with The Team from Paris to Berlin, Afghanistan and Washington, too, gathering enough material for a frankly nuanced and complicated portrait of a general leading a war that no one seemed to think was going anywhere but down the toilet. But the pull into the bubble was very real, though, and, considering much of the hagiography that had been written about McChrystal and Petraeus and the “COINdinistas” in the year previous, most of his colleagues in the corporate media were quite susceptible to it.
Not surprisingly, when he got outside the distortion field to publish his experiences in earnest, the bubble dwellers turned on him with full-force.
“The bubble had a reality-distorting effect on those inside it,” he wrote, “while perversely convincing those within the bubble that their view of reality was the absolute truth … the bubble was incredibly seductive, the ultimate expression of insiderness.”
For their part, the men surrounding the general should have been more with it. Getting “totally shitfaced” in front of a Rolling Stone reporter — one who is clearly staying sober throughout all of it, with his trusty notebook and tape recorder always at hand — turned out to be deadly for their careers. If this were a MTV “Behind the Music” documentary, Paris would have been the dramatic turning point in the demise of the band.
And McChrystal, was he so dizzy up there on Mount Olympus that he couldn’t see the folly in saying things like “bite me” in reference to Vice President Joe Biden, or in calling the war in Afghanistan “very questionable” in the presence of a reporter whose magazine all but demands by reputation that he come back with something edgy and subversive?
These answers may never really be known. Even Hastings questioned it. “I’d seen another side of (McChrystal’s) personality. I didn’t quite know why they had shown it to me,” he wrote, noting that, after covering the war since 2005, he had never heard such high-ranking officers badmouth such high-ranking civilians before — at least in front of journalists. “The wars had been going on for nearly ten years, and it had clearly taken its toll … McChrystal appeared to present a new kind of military elite, a member of the warrior class that had lost touch with the civilian world.”
“Or maybe the side I had been shown was there all along, and no one else had decided to write about it,” he surmised.
Maybe so. Some of the loudest shrieking at the time came from Hastings’ media peers who said he had broken the “gentleman’s agreement,” that he should have known implicitly when to turn the tape recorder off and put the pen away, ostensibly when the sources start wearing neckties around their heads and the sentences begin with a slurred, “I love this guy ….,” or when one tells you he’ll kill you (half jokingly) if you write an unflattering portrait of the boss. That last one actually happened, and Hastings kept it out of the article, but it made the book.
New York Times reporter and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner John Burns in an interview shortly after McChrystal was fired, said, “I think it’s very unfortunate that America has lost the services of such an outstanding general. I think it’s very unfortunate that it has impacted, and will impact so adversely, on what had been pretty good military/media relations.”
Then there was CBS’s Lara Logan, who I once described as the military’s “secret weapon” for all the surrogacy she’s provided stateside. She has played the network embed program in Iraq and Afghanistan like a virtuoso and to her greatest advantage, and was furious when Hastings appeared to be threatening it. Perhaps there was a bit of an identity crisis, too, as she seemed to forget who she was working for when she said to CNN: “Michael Hastings has never served his country the way Gen. McChrystal has.”
Hastings seems to have recovered from what was a rather pissy circling of the wagons by some (not all) of his colleagues, whom he consigns to the “Media-Military-Industrial Complex” chapter in his book.
“A number of famous journalists would say they heard these kinds of things all the time, but never reported them … it didn’t seem to make a difference that I hadn’t violated any agreement with McChrystal. The unwritten rule I’d broken was a simple one: You really weren’t supposed to write honestly about people in power.”
Before Christmas, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius — a true company man if there ever was one — was talking foreign policy on National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm show. The topic: the U.S. pull-out from Iraq and how the war had been waged on false pretenses from the beginning. I almost ran off the road in my car when I heard this part of the exchange:
Rehm: David, I’m going to ask you an unpleasant question. Do you think that journalists were complicit in promoting the idea that war in Iraq was inevitable?
Ignatius: Let me speak about my own work rather than talk about the profession as a whole. As I look back, there are no columns I’ve ever written that I’d more like to revise in light of what I know now than the ones I wrote then… And I think everybody in our profession looks back and I hope learned lessons from that, to ask more questions, just to insist on getting the evidence for things that are so consequential for the country.
Rehm: I, for one, feel very disappointed in our profession that we did not ask the questions that should have been asked.
Speak for yourself guys. There were plenty of people in “our profession,” at the risk of public scorn and career marginalization, who “questioned.” You and your friends merely refused to listen, perhaps out of some uncomfortable fear you’d hear your old journalistic integrity knocking.
Michael Hastings questioned too, by writing Runaway General, not the way everyone wanted, but according to the way his time in McChrystal’s world “actually happened” — which also included a damning vignette in which U.S. infantry soldiers in Afghanistan tell McChrystal to his face that the new rules of engagement under the heralded COIN (counterinsurgency) doctrine had left them confused and feeling vulnerable on the battlefield.
This brings us right back to the word “sadness.” Aside from the stunning display of Team America’s misjudgment and crass behavior, aside from McChrystal’s ballsy disregard for his civilian colleagues and leaders, aside from the fact that everyone seemed to be having too much fun waging the war (except for those poor bone-weary troops outside the wire), there is really nothing truly ground-breaking in Hastings’ reporting.
In fact, he strings a lot of old news stories and investigations together to build the historical narrative, burnishing them with a number of heretofore buried government reports and surveys about the progress (mainly lack thereof) in Afghanistan.
But what the narrative underscores in a fresh way, is just how little faith our military and civilian leaders had in our ultimate success in the mission. Yet they kept those instincts, those ever-gathering red flags, away from the American public, ostensibly because their politics and myriad self-interests required that the Afghan “surge” in 2010 must go on as planned.
The story begins with Gen. David McKiernan, who in 2009 thinks “the trend lines aren’t great,” and is “skeptical on Afghanistan,” but he asks newly-elected President Obama for more troops anyway, according to Hastings. But it’s not as many as “the golden boys” Petraeus and McChrystal want in order to transfer their COIN doctrine from Iraq to Afghanistan. After 37 years and no major screw-ups, McKiernan is summarily fired by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in May 2009 to make way for McChrystal.
It’s McChrystal’s war now and he knows it. He gathers his think tank friends and friendly scholars to assess the situation and they produce what he wants: a recommendation for 40,000 more troops. He gets 30,000. He surges into Helmand and Kandahar provinces in 2010, including a march into Marjah that he later calls “a bleeding ulcer.” He tells Hastings the success of Afghanistan is “questionable,” while his Team and everyone Hastings talks to seem to pepper their upbeat talk with more uncertainty and cynicism by the day.
By the end of the book, Petraeus, “who keeps spinning progress, despite the fact that violence keeps going up,” quits the war in July 2011. Military experts say, “COIN is dead.” “Petraeus hates Afghanistan,” an Afghan official tells Hastings.
Nevertheless, “by all accounts, Petraeus has exited gracefully,” Hastings adds.
There is no such graceful exit for the U.S. from Afghanistan. This may be a cathartic end to Hastings’ experience, but so far, no end to the story. The Operators is sadly familiar: a million film plots of mortal men who flew too high and came down with a crash. The rest — Afghanistan, scarred by war but still standing while its brutal terrain grinds general upon general, diplomat after diplomat, into pieces — is just plain sad.
Twitter Vlahos @KelleyBVlahos