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The Stringer and the Snake-eater


PUBLISHED: June 23, 2010
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.

16 Comments

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Tim Osburn's picture
Tim Osburn · 9 years ago
Thank you for this piece. It is really well written and it says things that should be said about the whole incident.
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Eric Froh's picture
Eric Froh · 9 years ago
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? Just tell him the truth. The Pakistani public (and much of the Pakistani military and intelligence communities) won’t tolerate the Pakistani government openly allowing U.S. troops to operate in Pakistan. (They apparently will tolerate the Pakistani government looking the other way when it comes to U.S. drone and SF operations within Pakistan’s borders as long as both Pakistan and U.S. deny these operations are going on.) Fix that unfixable problem and we’d be out of Afghanistan within the year.
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Who me?'s picture
Who me? · 9 years ago
“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” I don’t agree with this. There can’t be any qualification on war reporters actually having served for one side or another or whether they’ve “roughed it” enough. They’re reporters, their job is to report. They are the eyes of the public – what is distasteful about the eyes of the public turned on the conduct of military men? They saw what they saw, whose fault is that? It’s a good thing that reporters are not army men, they have no loyalty or prejudice.
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David J. Morris's picture
David J. Morris · 9 years ago
With respect to Who me?’s comments, war is a diabolically complicated enterprise and you need to invest in the subject to understand how it works. The best reporters from the Vietnam era (Halberstam, Sheehan, Herr) all spent loads of time in the field and in Sheehan’s & Herr’s cases had both been in the army. In 2007, I met a braying ass of a reporter from a publication that shall remain nameless who strolled into a interview with General John Allen (now Petraeus’ deputy) in Camp Fallujah and asked, “So, general, what’s the deal with these so-called tribes?” Never mind that the major Iraqi tribes have been in existence about a thousand years longer than the United States. Which isn’t to say that you have to be a vet to get it, but you can’t help but be skeptical when you meet reporters who don’t know the difference between a Scud and a hand grenade.
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Regulators's picture
Regulators · 9 years ago
Seconding Who Me?: Agreed, it is outside the scope of requirements for good reportage that a war-correspondent have first-hand knowledge of the soldier’s perspective. Additionally, I disagree with the author’s assertion that Hastings offers no alternative to the COIN paradigm. The final page of his piece paints a picture of an Afghanistan which poses no threat to the US and is not vital to US strategic interests. (Of course, this is not actually true if we’re defining these interests broadly enough to include US corporate interests…which is always how they are, in fact, defined by those in power–though not publicly and explicitly.) Furthermore, he presents an Afghanistan for which the US foreign-policy establishment cannot seem to articulate a clear set of goals. He closes the article with this: “So far, counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war. There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word “victory” when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible.” Given all of this, how does one not understand this piece as advocating the alternative of complete withdrawal? Is it perhaps because this option, having always been excluded from the ‘acceptable’ range of debate by the government and its sycophants in the mainstream media is invisible to the author, though so many non-militarized Americans believe it to be the only sane, just alternative?
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Gary's picture
Gary · 9 years ago
“ALL CONVERSATIONS WITH MILITARY PERSONNEL ARE ON THE RECORD.” All conversations are ON the record for embed agreements? Did you mean to say “off the record?” I was hoping for some clarification.
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Sophie's picture
Sophie · 9 years ago
Great essay. Glad Sullivan linked me over here–
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Luca's picture
Luca · 9 years ago
»(Rolling Stone) … 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… ” And neither do you. As for your own “drive by” of Michael Hastings, you do not even bother to get out of your office but happily raise questions about this journalist’s character, his state of mind and his integrity. And by the way, the last time I looked even some freelance journalists spend much of their time honing their craft, a career which when performed with honour has always provided me with greater value than the “study of war” – speaking as a citizen and a voter. From this posting I would assume you might have been happier with the status quo ante: with a man you suggest may not have been the right one for the job in charge of a strategy you agree is at best questionable. I feel to ask: what precisely was the point of this piece? I mean, besides giving the freelancer a kicking?
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
»(Rolling Stone) … 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…” And neither do you.
Luca, clearly you have never read a word of VQR or the articles that we’ve published by Dave. Take a glance at our current issue’s portfolio on Afghanistan and some of Dave’s articles before you continue to embarrass yourself.
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Luca's picture
Luca · 9 years ago
That’s right. I am only reacting to this article. It thought that was the point. Perhaps you should read it again.
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
That’s right. I am only reacting to this article.
No, you’re not–you explicitly made a broader point. You responded to the author’s statement 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,” accusing Dave Morris and, implicitly, VQR of doing the same thing. If you were “only reacting to this article,” then you would have done so, rather than picking up the author’s broader point about Rolling Stone’s coverage. And as long as I’m complaining, what’s with your accusation that the author “[does not] even bother to get out of your office but happily raise questions about this journalist’s character, his state of mind and his integrity”? How do you know whether the author left his office? And, if he had, where should have gone? To Hastings’ home, perhaps? Do you believe that he would have gained some essential insight into Hastings that was impossible to have been gained when they got together last July? Did you even bother to get out of your office before happily raising questions about Morris’ character, his state of mind, and his integrity? If not, why? Isn’t it possible that you’re doing the same thing that the author is–engaging in a discussion based on the best information available to you–and that this is, in fact, what reasonable human beings do?
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NS Webster's picture
NS Webster · 9 years ago
I’ve embedded in Iraq as a freelancer three times. Like Morris, I’m also a veteran (Army) of Desert Storm. To answer the comment: “# Gary Says: June 25th, 2010 at 5:38 pm “ALL CONVERSATIONS WITH MILITARY PERSONNEL ARE ON THE RECORD.†All conversations are ON the record for embed agreements? Did you mean to say “off the record?” I was hoping for some clarification.” All conversations once embedded with the unit are explicitly ON THE RECORD. If any ‘off the record’ agreement is made that is SEPERATE from the embed agreement, and also not in writing. In other words, if Hastings was present for conversations, those conversations were ON THE RECORD whether they were talking to him or not. Case in point: On one embed, I would hang out in the company headquarters now and then…it was fine, even though they were discussing operations. Nobody minded. The Rangers showed up one day to do a special operation, which they discussed in the headquarters a special operation. I didn’t leave, but I also didn’t make myself obvious. In the embed agreement it explicitly states that you can NOT write about special operations missions - which I wasn’t going to do, but I wanted to hear what they had to say. This was the ONLY time the company commander wouldn’t let me stay, and had one of the junior officers escort me away. He “apologized” later, and just said “I can’t have you there while we’re planning that,” which was obvious to me anyway - but I wanted to see how far I could get. It’s not my job to deny myself information, but their job to deny it. The point of all that is there are written rules that Hastings followed. Whether he FAIRLY followed those rules or not is another matter, and will probably be something other reporters will have to deal with in the future.
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NS Webster's picture
NS Webster · 9 years ago
Also, for factual accuracy, Hasting’s fiance worked for an NGO, and was not a reporter like he was.
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NS Webster's picture
NS Webster · 9 years ago
I posted the above then thought about it some more. I don’t think Hastings was out-of-line, and while MCC’s staffers flapped their gums far too much, I think the eventual response of his firing was out-of-sync with what the article contained. The most controversial sections were a step or two above normal frustration, the kind of stuff that makes a profile worth reading…but apparently the stuff that a profile subject should keep under wraps under all costs (not that he was even the one saying it)…
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BxBomber's picture
BxBomber · 9 years ago
“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.” Excellent article until this part. Why is this distasteful at all? Since when does “the study of war” somehow elevate those who practice it above the rest of us? All this guy did was lift up the military’s rug a little. I find nothing distasteful about that whatsoever.
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Erik's picture
Erik · 9 years ago
I found the tone of this piece off-putting, disappointing, and ultimately it was unpersuasive. Killing the messenger is what it sounds like. But whatever the Lara Logans of the world say about him, I feel he’s done the US a favor by showing the public that the leadership of the war there was on a bad tack, and that the whole thing is just as bad an idea as most of us intuit. Erik
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