By Jake Whitney
The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan
By Michael Hastings
Blue Rider Press. 432 pages. $27.95.
In late April 2010, Michael Hastings was holed up in the Berlin Ritz-Carlton pursuing what would become his blockbuster Rolling Stone profile of General Stanley McChrystal. It was 2 a.m. and he was speaking freely with McChrystal’s head of communications, Duncan Boothby. Boothby was worried. A few nights earlier, Hastings had accompanied McChrystal and his team to a Parisian bar where the group’s boozing and freewheeling banter stunned Hastings; one team member even threatened to kill him if he penned an unfavorable article. Boothby, a public relations veteran who had worked in Iraq, knew the group had been recklessly cavalier in a reporter’s presence. He expressed “concerns” about the episode and pleaded with Hastings to “keep our interest in mind when writing the story.”
Hastings did no such thing. The ensuing article, “The Runaway General,” exposed McChrystal and his men’s disregard for the military’s civilian leadership. By denigrating Obama’s wartime strategy and dubbing the Vice President “Bite Me,” the team was insubordinate enough to force McChrystal’s resignation. The article won Hastings a Polk Award and a book deal, but it was not universally lauded. Many of his colleagues accused him of breaking a tacit media-military agreement by printing innocuous jokes not meant for public consumption. Dexter Filkins of The New York Times dismissed it as a case of stressed out officers blowing off steam. Lara Logan of CBS News said, “Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.”
Hastings confronts these critics in his new book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, which is largely based on his reporting for the McChrystal profile. It was the fear of losing access, he says, that sparked the ire of fellow correspondents. War reporters worried that if military brass viewed them as unfriendly, they would get barred from elite circles. And reporters derived “feelings of prestige” from “their proximity to power,” he asserts. As a result, they were in the Pentagon’s bubble.
This “schmoozy relationship” resulted, of course, in some of the most shameful reporting of the past decade. McChrystal, who was a Pentagon spokesman in 2003, tells Hastings that the military “co-opted the media” during this period, and he points to writers such as Robert Kaplan of The Atlantic as “totally co-opted.” The most egregious case was New York Times reporter Judith Miller’s quid pro quo with Dick Cheney, where Cheney’s office provided Miller with exclusive but anonymous quotes claiming evidence of WMD in Iraq, and Cheney would cite those stories to justify the war.
The struggle between journalism and propaganda plays out vividly in the relationship between Hastings and Boothby. A former actor, Boothby had engineered a half-dozen hagiographic profiles of McChrystal—not by setting strict journalistic ground rules but by making reporters feel like team members. It almost worked on Hastings, too. Accompanying McChrystal and his men around Europe for a week had him wanting to please his hosts.
“Sure, the war had become morally dubious, ridiculously expensive, and would likely fuel anti-American terrorism for years to come—but they were such cool guys,” Hastings writes. “Why not give them a chance?” What saved him was his four years in Iraq, where he had witnessed colleagues fall hard into the “access trap” and where his fiancée had been killed by Sunni extremists, an experience he recounted in his 2008 book, I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story.
His assessment of the Afghanistan War is grim; all the evidence he offers suggests an unwinnable quagmire that is destabilizing the region. But despite the dire statistics, disheartening interviews, and tragic soldier stories, he leavens the book with fascinating bits of lighter information and scuttlebutt. He includes the military’s impressions of Obama (that he was intimidated by the generals and avoided them), detailed portraits of the major players (McChrystal was a liberal who banned Fox News from his briefing room; Defense Secretary Robert Gates was prone to telling corny jokes), and petty infighting among military brass and ambassadors. The Operators is a modern war classic, blending extensive reporting and gonzo journalism with a powerful statement about the media’s culpability in our failure to end the war.
One unfortunate omission, especially given the prominence Boothby takes in the book, is a broader discussion of military PR efforts. When I interviewed Hastings last year, he had spoken at length about the Pentagon spin machine, describing the $200 million “Operation Earnest Voice” that established phony Twitter and Facebook users to disseminate American propaganda. Another of his Rolling Stone articles exposed the military’s use of psychological operations on U.S. politicians to induce them to provide more resources for the war. These initiatives are barely mentioned in The Operators. He told me, “The frightening aspect is that [using psy-ops on Senators] is part of a larger effort from the Pentagon to tear down the wall between public affairs and propaganda.” Indeed, he pegs it as a $4.7 billion a year effort spent on 27,000 media professionals. The role that this spin machine plays in prolonging the bloodshed is a discussion that is long overdue.
Hastings’s conclusions are chilling and forceful, if not altogether new. Most Americans see the dire evidence from Afghanistan and believe the war should end, but the “operators”—those who run, plan, and contribute to it—continue to declare American progress. Why?
Hastings hints that profiteering is one reason. American corporations rake in billions from war, leaving scant incentive for the arms manufacturers, security companies, and even food suppliers to want to stop fighting. When McChrystal first arrived in Kabul, he was appalled at the resources wasted shipping in burgers, ice cream, and Xboxes, Hastings writes, as entire American towns were “transplanted to Afghanistan, complete with Baskin-Robbins ice cream, NFL football on flat-screen TVs, and lobster dinners.”
As to the media’s role, Hastings jokes that Eisenhower’s “immense establishment” should be renamed the “media-military-industrial complex.” Indeed, war boosts ratings, sells newspapers, and provides pundits and hosts with something to fill the 24/7 news cycle. The media’s culpability lies in presenting war as entertainment, as a drama fought by others on a battlefield far removed from the exigencies of real life. Hastings agrees with military writer Andrew Bacevich that because of our small volunteer force Americans are able to disengage themselves even further. The video-game-like drone strikes, phony tales of heroism (as in the case of Pat Tillman), and our continued refusal to photograph dead American soldiers compound this disengagement.
Then there is the romantic ideal of the war journalist. While it’s no surprise that soldiers and commanders often enjoy battle, many correspondents are also “war junkies,” Hastings says, as addicted to the whiz of bullets as the most hardcore generals. They may mouth grandiose motives about bearing witness but in reality it’s the prestige and the “perverse fun of war” that keep them at the front. But the truth is Hastings isn’t so different from his colleagues. He completely buys into the romantic ideal, portraying himself as a chain smoking, no bullshit, globetrotting truth seeker, and, like the generals and soldiers he covers, he revels in the camaraderie and machismo of a war zone. Does he really want the fighting to end?
He recounts how he was in Washington, D.C., after Osama bin Laden was assassinated and a celebration erupted outside his window. He couldn’t participate, he says, because he was overcome with guilt over the fact that the decade of war bin Laden unleashed provided him with a career—and a purpose—that he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Even in hindsight, he marvels at “the Ritz, the Hotel Rivoli, the bullet trains, the first class lounges, the wars. Drinking bitter lemon and asking fucked up questions until dawn.” And he admits: “I could live like this forever.”
Jake Whitney is a freelance journalist and contributing writer for Guernica: A Magazine of Art and Politics.