- Mista Kurtz—he dead.
- Joseph Conrad
Well, the McChrystal Deathwatch is officially over and the good general did not survive. There’s little grace or meaning in watching a distinguished warrior like McChrystal go down, the victim of his own rogue mouth. In case you haven’t heard, a damning Rolling Stone profile written by freelancer Michael Hastings has appeared in which members of the general’s staff go on record describing the National Security Advisor as “a clown” and the President as “uncomfortable” and “intimidated” by military brass. At one point in the piece, McChrystal is shown being aggravated by an email from envoy Richard Holbrooke, groaning, “Oh not another e-mail from Holbrooke . . . I don’t even want to open it.”
As recently as last week, McChrystal, the commanding general in Afghanistan, was being portrayed in the press as a vision of soldierly virtue, Petraeus’s Protégé, the Man Who Never Sleeps, the Fittest General in American History, a pasha of pain who reportedly runs twelve miles every morning, seems to hold food in disdain, wolfing down a single meal a day. He was a man who lived everyday as if his old Ranger School instructors were still watching, making notes on their clipboards for the upcoming patrol debrief. If he had a weakness, it was his barrack-room soul, his penchant for rough humor, the sort of squad bay posturing that got Patton in hot water in World War II (he slapped a soldier and was relieved). The son of an army two-star, he and his three other brothers all went in. Even his lone female sibling signed on for a second tour, marrying an army officer. Like most of the people he grew up with, Stanley McChrystal seems to have been born a soldier, which was may have been the problem all along as he seemed to lack respect for civilians, particularly the ones elected to lead the country.
In the end it was a freelancer who didn’t give a damn about how many bridges got burned who brought the general down, a reporter who’d lost his fiancé in Baghdad in 2006 (she was a reporter, too) and who wrote an unloved memoir about it (the Times panned it) and who when I met him last year exuded the sort of undiluted hypervigilence that I have always associated with people who have untreated PTSD. (Full Disclosure: I ran into Hastings at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony last July and did two rounds with him at a local Provincetown bar, the name of which I predictably cannot recall.)
What Hastings wrote was a classic Rolling Stone burn piece—not unlike Evan Wright’s 2004 Ellie-winning series “Generation Kill” about the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, which shortened a few Marine careers—an article short on tactical context and understanding but long on color. What Hastings’s piece showed was not a warrior-priest at the height of his powers (as virtually every previous New York Times profile had) but an aging snake-eater with the mouth of a longshoreman and an axe to grind with the Beltway, trading obscenities with his entourage like it was happy hour at the Bragg O-club. It’s hard to imagine a more damaging profile than what appeared on Rolling Stone’s website on Tuesday and you have to wonder if the old man wasn’t secretly asking Hastings to take him out of his misery, and you can imagine him aching to give the civvies the finger, let the chips fall where they may. It’s no great mystery that seasoned warriors like McChrystal harbor a secret relationship with their self-destructive side, what Conrad called “the fascination of the abomination.” You don’t habitually parachute out of airplanes nor go to shuras in treacherous tribal areas without body armor if you don’t enjoy stepping up to the brink from time to time, both in word and deed. And with a samurai like McChrystal there was never, ever any doubt about his physical courage, except to wonder if he didn’t suffer from a surplus of it, if his valor didn’t in some way deafen him to the better angels of his nature or force him to rely too heavily on his physical vigor to the detriment of his compassion, prevent him from cultivating the killer empathic sense that both Lee and T.E. Lawrence possessed which allowed them to project themselves into the mind of their opposite, be it an enemy commander or a visiting journalist.
Well, his career, whatever it was exactly, is over now. There is no glory in his demise, McChrystal was a stiff but he was no villain, no glad-handing Westmoreland. Still, looking back, it is easy to see that he was the wrong man for the job. The great counterinsurgents in history have nearly always been scholar/artists in military costume, men who led more with their minds and their humanity than with their bodies. Men like T.E. Lawrence, Robert Thompson, H.R. McMaster and, it must be said, David Petraeus. Leaders of this sort tend to cultivate geeky public personas, coming across as dweebs, brainy dudes bent on out-thinking the enemy. Typical of this is Mark Bowden’s recent Vanity Fair profile of Petraeus, “The Professor of War.” Compare this with the New York Times profile of McChrystal that ran shortly before his ascension to the Afghanistan command in September 2009. The final beat of the article ran with a quote from Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, “If you asked me the first thing that comes to mind about General McChrystal, I think of no body fat.”
McChrystal’s previous military record doesn’t paint a picture of an officer with a background for the murky logic of tribal diplomacy or insurgent reconciliation, both of which played a central role in Iraq. From September 2003 to August 2008, he led the Joint Special Operations Command, the most secretive force in the US military that operated on the most old-fashioned principles about how to win a guerilla war: find the bad guys and kill them. One of the units under McChrystal’s command, Task Force 6-26 was credited with killing the Iraqi insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and while there can be little doubt as to the brutal efficiency of these sorts of operations, it remains unclear how relevant they are and it was exactly this sort of mentality that Petraeus seemed to be railing against in Iraq when he said “you can’t kill your way to victory.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Task Force 6-26 was later implicated in a post-Abu Ghraib interrogation investigation and 34 members of the unit were formally disciplined. Even more troubling is McChrystal’s role in the Pat Tillman friendly fire cover-up which happened under his command, where he signed off on Tillman’s Silver Star award citation which omitted any mention that it was friendly fire that killed the former NFL star.
It is still a little difficult to believe that an accomplished fifty-five-year-old officer would say and allow his staff to say the outrageous things in the Rolling Stone article. You can just hear the chorus in Washington: “What was he thinking?” But then, I think McChrystal and his buddies didn’t expect that Hastings would actually write down everything they said and put it into print. It’s an unfortunate staple of Beltway journalism that has bled over into war reporting that most reporters are loathe to burn their sources by writing derogatory things about them. To be blunt, most reporters are as career-obsessed as the officers they’re interviewing and they don’t want to poison the well. This is doubly true if the officer being interviewed is a four-star general. There is a simple reciprocity involved: if you want to be invited back to ride on The Boss’s helicopter, if you want continued access, you’d better not write about his soft spot for strippers and gin. That said, it’s a naturally antagonistic relationship and most officers hate reporters because they represent a threat to their reputations. There are no medals awarded for conspicuous gallantry in a press conference. As one unusually shrewd captain explained to me at a remote outpost in Iraq one evening: “Listen Dave, I know you’re gonna screw me. I understand that that’s how this works. I just want to know how you’re gonna screw me.” It is for this reason that written into the embed agreement that all reporters must sign is a clause that states in capital letters, “ALL CONVERSATIONS WITH MILITARY PERSONNEL ARE ON THE RECORD.”
Enter into this mix Michael Hastings, a reporter who apparently had made a decision at some point to not play by the normal rules; who can be friendly, interested, and reasonably non-threatening in-person; whose brother is an army officer; and who was writing for what is primarily a pop culture magazine. McChrystal and his staff, jangled and beat-down after literally years of being in and out of various combat zones, probably thought they were coming across as hip and irreverent in front of the Rolling Stone guy, knowing that there was a far better chance their teenage daughters were going to read about them there than in the back pages of the National Review. Of course, many of those staff officers are now dealing with what amounts to the final mistake of their careers within an organization that doesn’t forgive much in the way of media fiascos.
In retrospect, I see two problems in Hastings’s kind of merciless, sacred-cow-tipping approach to war reporting, the most obvious of which is that he will probably never be allowed to embed with an American military unit ever again. The other, trickier problem has to do with his clear, unqualified contempt for the official US counterinsurgency strategy. In his article, Hastings derides the Pentagon’s counterinsurgent priesthood as the “COINdinistas.” Fair enough. But what does he offer as an alternative? Not much as it turns out. And this is something that has always frustrated me about Rolling Stone’s coverage of America’s recent wars: they take great pains to penetrate the military subculture but give us only caricatures and thinly veiled mockery with little time given to an adult discussion of the issues. Totally absent is any cold-blooded assessment of the challenges facing our troops. And there is something distasteful about a well-educated reporter who would never, ever join the military himself, dropping into a war zone for a month and doing a drive-by on a guy who’s dedicated his every waking hour for the last thirty years to the study of war.
Also missing in action from Hastings’s oeuvre is any discussion of the tactical alternatives in Afghanistan, namely the approach championed by Joe Biden and noted historian Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel who lost a son in Iraq. Their school of thought, which I happen to support, strikes a balance between the current Surge 2.0 strategy and outright disengagement, re-focusing the American mission on the problem that got us into Afghanistan in the first place: preventing a major terrorist attack on the US homeland. The priority of the Biden-Bacevich approach is on destroying Al Qaeda, not the Taliban and its affiliated insurgent groups. It is a counterterrorism approach that would require at most 30,000 troops, not the current nation-building strategy which necessitates six times that many. To my way of thinking, this is common sense, yet here we are, ignoring the maxim bolted above the entryway to every war college in America that says: Don’t Re-fight the Last War. And this is my parting challenge to readers: how do you explain to a Marine on his fourth combat tour why he is fighting in Helmand province while all available intelligence indicates that the bulk of the Al Qaeda leadership is hundreds of miles away in the northwest tribal areas of Pakistan?
McChrystal’s time is over and so is another phase in the longest war in US history. Let’s hope he has enough good sense to do what Douglas MacArthur said all old soldiers should do and then didn’t do himself: just fade away.