My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In a personally-revealing chapter of The Operators, Michael Hastings cites passages from Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty while describing the odd subculture of the war correspondent. The whole of the famous quote used in the title of Knightley’s book goes: “In war, the first casualty is truth.”
In most ways, this casualty is unavoidable. The fog of war and its power to suffocate the truth is providential in many ways. It shields the troop movements, motives, and subversions needed for victory on either side. It also covers a multitude of sins on the part of the men fighting the war. So, what happens when a journalist is given unprecedented access and candor from a general and his staff in a war that can’t be won? What happens when that journalist bravely takes his mission seriously enough to try and keep the truth alive?
Well, some important people get fired; others die. That’s what happens.
The Operators started as profile on General Stanley McChrystal the Rolling Stone published in 2010. The journalist had taken the slick media-relations approach of General Stanley McChrystal’s staff at face value: Nothing (or almost nothing) was to be off the record. This was to include some inopportune quotes from McChrystal on Vice President Biden (“Bite me”) US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, his fellow generals, and the war itself. Upon release, the fallout from the article was immediate. President Obama quickly relieved McChrystal of his command.
The behind-the-scenes details of the situation in Afghanistan related here should come as no surprise to most readers who’ve kept up with ten-plus years of America’s feckless nation-building in the land that even the full, shameless force of a Soviet occupation couldn’t tame. There are heartrending stories of young and promising soldiers sacrificed to IED’s made of “fertilizer, wood, and manure.” There are interviews with well-meaning local Afghanis whom we later learn were assassinated soon after Hastings spoke with them. There are stories of mind-boggling corruption and waste, near-mutinies among US soldiers in the field, and a political agenda totally out of step with the real chances for success. All the while, there’s a ceaseless, braying call to just get the hell out and forget all about it.
If only war were that simple.
A thought that occurred to me several times through The Operators: Smarts does not equal wisdom. McChrystal and his compatriots ingeniously corner the Obama administration into tripling the size of the American presence during the Afghan surge, only to be faced with the certainty they will fail in an even grander way than before. Wit doesn’t serve them well. They pat themselves on the back while sinking even deeper in the mire. It’s not for lack of intelligence nor due to any hidebound conventionality. They come across as bright, unconventional, irreverent-though-loyal-to-their-cause, and constantly willing to take a different tack to reach their goal. None of it works. Extra boots on the ground and innovative strategies only alienate and kill more of the people the Americans are there to “save.”
What does come through to the close reader of this book are a few things the self-censoring US media likely glossed over out of sheer wishful thinking–or perhaps coercion. During a drunken cavort at a bar in Paris, General Mike Flynn confesses to Hastings that he thinks they’ll never get Osama Bin Laden, who at the time was the stated target of US involvement in the region. Hastings notes this point — twice — with awe. Very interesting.
Another episode that comes into shocking focus given the events of one evening a few years after Hastings’ return from Afghanistan:
Jake came up to me. “We’ll hunt you down and kill you if we don’t like what you write,” he said. “C. (a former British SAS assassin) will hunt you down and kill you.”
On the evening of June 18th, 2013, Michael Hastings made a call to friends stating that he was “working on something big.” Later that night, his new Mercedes coupe sped out of control along a sleepy L.A. street and exploded on impact, killing him instantly. Mercedes-Benz made no attempts to investigate the accident to determine what would make one of their latest vehicles in apparently fine repair explode in such a manner. The LA police determined the cause as drunk driving, despite no alcohol found in the minimal human remains. Hastings’ widow at first called for justice, but was later quoted as sheepishly saying she just wanted to drop it.
Michael Hastings: A fine journalist and author who tried to keep the truth alive through the fog of war.