Saturday, March 16, 2013

Books Read in 2013: "The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan" by Michael Hastings


This is, in part, the book-length treatment of the article that Michael Hastings wrote for Rolling Stone, "The Runaway General", that ended in General Stanley McChrystal's resignation as commander of the American forces in Afghanistan. It's expanded, more detailed, and includes, in a "meta" twist, the shit storm that resulted when his article was published.

The book includes the by now familiar observations that the war was and is poorly defined and executed, with no real strategy other than for whichever poor sap ends up running it to get out and hand it off to his poor sap of a successor gracefully. 

It's also a book about the strange relationship that the press has with the military. One of McChrystal's constant attendants, and the person who proposes to Hastings the initial trip to Paris that starts the thing, is Duncan Boothby, a civilian PR flack whose job is to sell both Brand McChrystal and The War. Just as the military infrastructure has come to depend upon civilian contractors for construction, food, maintenance and other niceties, it's also come to depend upon civilians to help "get out the message" and influence the public and the politicians to keep these grand adventures going. 

There are several moments when Hastings wonders just what McChrystal and his team -- who have given themselves the name "Team America", ironically-ish appropriated from the 2004 Parker/Stone movie -- want from him. They joke about being "on the cover of the 'Rolling Stone'", while singing the lyrics from the Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show song. They've already had many laudatory articles written about them in other publications, not to mention pieces about McChrystal on "60 Minutes" and elsewhere on TV. Is he just one more journalist to be duped? 

For Hastings, it's a quandary, because while he likes these guys, the things that they're saying are things that he's never heard active-duty military officers say before, and certainly not at this level of command. Does he brush it off and write the hagiographic piece that they've come to expect? Does he use the material and pick out the most salacious bits to embarrass them for his benefit? Does he walk the center line and try to make everyone happy in order to maintain his access? This -- access -- is what he believes is one of the most pressing problems in journalism today. The "media-military-industrial complex" as he calls it. The media, through DoD approved embeds and other levels of access to officers and commanders, can report from the war up close only if the maintain their good favor with the military. The military can ensure that they get good press by schmoozing the journalists and getting them the good stuff, the stuff that will "make" their stories. Meanwhile, no one is getting the real story or the facts necessary to make informed decisions because of the hearty pats on the back that these two institutions are busy giving to one another. 

It's not a perfect book -- it's a little shaggy in spots, but that may ultimately be to it's credit. Definitely engaging, though, and if Hastings can keep his skeptical, clear-eyed perspective, I'll eagerly read what he writes next.