There are two distinct narratives to this mostly excellent book.
In one, Hastings recaps and expands on his embedded assignment alongside Gen. Stanley McChrystal's team as they traveled Europe and Afghanistan. A variety of inappropriate conversations later reported in Rolling Stone ended up leading to McC's dismissal as Afghanistan war commander. In the second, he presents an after-the-fact roundup of reporting on the Afghanistan situation, and other events in DC.
The book will be reviewed by any number of audiences with preconceived opinions.
There is a set of people who view what Hastings wrote as an attack on the military, which it isn't. Or, that he betrayed his source's confidence, which he didn't - they had to have known he was recording and writing notes. That's what a reporter does, after all, didn't they know it? Or they thought the same relationship that always works would work again - you hang out, you have some late night conversations, you trade stories and you bond...and when the writing's being done, then the reporter should know what to leave in, what to leave out. It always worked before, so why didn't it work now? I'm sure Duncan Boothby, McC's PAO, wondered that when he was resigning.
It didn't work, because Hastings is not Bob Woodward - he's not protecting access by protecting the bridge against enemies from either side. He burned the bridge with everyone, including him, on it. That's what the most honest reporter does - tells the story that he/she sees, and worries about the truth first and last...and relationships nowhere. The reportees aren't called friends, after all - they're called 'sources.'
Hastings shows this in a section where he presents a blistering critique of war reporters in general. He writes, quoting someone else, but it's really Hastings' point: "They...are invested in being war correspondents. They are invested in the myth of it. They wake up every day and they buff their armor. They make it nice and shiny."
I've actually been an embedded photojournalist several times in Iraq - so there's no way I read a passage like that and not take it personally. But that's fine; I get his point and I can take it. I do think his contempt would have been stronger if he had turned that criticism on himself a little more.
The part of the book that deals with the McChrystal embed is the best. He sticks to what's said and heard, and usually lets the words and observations stand on their own. He provides analysis and conclusions, but he sticks to the evidence at hand. He's documented it, whether written or recorded. Nobody disputed that what was said WAS said - people are simply upset that he actually reported the truthful, embarrassing words. McC's team clearly wanted to get a boost into pop culture by bringing a Rolling Stone reporter along - so they were trying to use Hastings as much/more than Hastings was using them. This is what an embed is like.
Sometimes I wonder, though, if the conversations he reports have enough meat on them to merit all this attention. Just because two people are talking in a room doesn't make it news, and McC's team reserved their derision for their superiors - never those below. Don't we all complain about our bosses? Does it really matter? I don't entirely have an answer.
The book also has after-the-fact reporting about the situation in Afghanistan. Because Hastings is not present for all of the events, it doesn't have the same urgency or passion. It's interesting, but nothing I hadn't read before. The part of the book most compelling and interesting is the embedded narrative where Hastings story IS the story.
There are a couple big missing parts. The first would-be publisher of this book dropped it - why? What happened? And, at what point did Hastings know he had a book deal? If he went in knowing that a high-paying book deal depended on getting some money quotes, that's relevant to the reader. He does not address any of that at all.
Hastings is absolutely right about the "media-military-industrial complex." While we have a "free" press, all that means is reporters are not censored by the government - they do it to themselves. Reporters protect sources, leave out embarrassing info, and work to guarantee a new story that will never quite make enough waves to get anyone in too much trouble. So Sarah Palin can be attacked all day long, but military leaders are above reproach? Absurd.
In the days ahead, there will be the usual harrumphing about how Hastings "blew his chance, and nobody will trust him, and sources will never talk to him now."
Spare me - they'll line up to talk to him, because the challenge works both ways. They think they'll be the one that Hastings makes the hero in his next book. The source wants to talk, they always want to talk.
Great book and powerful reporting about truths that people wanted hidden - while the after-the-fact reporting slows it down, his description of the embed itself is enlightening, controversial, impressive and honest. If a reporter doesn't report what they see and hear, then they didn't report anything at all - and Hastings did that in spades.
on January 23, 2012
You may remember how back in 2010 an article in Rolling Stone got General Stanley McChrystal fired from his job running the war in Afghanistan. McChrystal and his team were presented as arrogant, free-wheeling and insubordinate, bashing the President, as well as the civilian leadership. I remember finding very little surprising about how McChrystal was portrayed in the article -- but I'm a cynic, it's my belief that most people who hold powerful positions tend to be burdened with hubris and incompetence. The fact that this is true, but is rarely reported in the media due to the cozy relationship between the power brokers and the court stenographers, is what really caused the firestorm. It wasn't so much that Hastings' story was true that upset so many in Washington, it was that he had the temerity to put the truth in print.
The Operators is a book-length version of the Rolling Stone article, covering the first few years of the Obama administration's efforts in Afghanistan. And those looking for a hero in the story are going to have a hard time finding one. Even Hastings, the narrator and ostensible protagonist, isn't particularly likable.
The war Hastings describes is one dominated by political infighting, with various factions hidden away inside their own insulated bubbles, incapable of recognizing the truth, or refusing to admit the truth when it conflicts with ideology. The Obama administration comes off as weak and ineffective, the Afghan government as corrupt and impossibly incompetent, and the American military as an isolated culture more concerned by its own inner workings and politics than whether or not it can achieve actual "success" in a country as thoroughly broken as Afghanistan (or even what "success" might mean). The media gets the worst of the criticism though, compromising its professional integrity in exchange for access to the people in power. The only people presented at all sympathetically are the individual American soldiers and infantry units who face the true reality on the ground every day.
It's hard to come away from The Operators feeling like there's any hope -- not just for America in Afghanistan, but for our ability to accomplish anything substantial on a large scale. The dysfunction in America seems baked into our DNA, with political polarization and personal ambition overriding any sense of the greater good. Granted, this is just one person's view of the situation in Afghanistan, but given that no one is treated terribly well, it's hard not to believe that The Operators may be close to the truth.
on January 6, 2012
Journalism is a shadow of its former self. The days of Walter Cronkite and a press anxious to fulfill its role in a democracy is pretty much gone. Co-opted by the very people it should be examining and career ambition. Offer a critical comment? Lose your access. Not just for you but possibly for your employer as well.
I am sure there are some here who will give a bad review without reading the book. But this is a story that needs to see the light of day if for no other reason than to remind us of the proper role of the press in a democracy.
Well documented and well written. A breath of fresh air unless you prefer celebrity biographies.
on June 23, 2013
I have enormous respect for the troops who are sent to fight in places like Afghanistan.
But the politicians (and some of the commanders) who put them there? Not so much.
This book, with its authentic and stark portrayal of the thoughts and actions of one such commander, confirms the impression that the lives and money spent in Afghanistan are almost 100% utterly wasted. The sheer scale of the billions and billions of dollars and thousands upon thousands of lives poured down the drain for no good reason "we're there because we're there", is utterly mind boggling.
This book should be mandatory reading for everyone with any interest in the so-called war on terror.
on January 6, 2012
What some have the nerve to call "yellow journalism" is what journalism is supposed to do: expose the powerful and well-connected failures, mistakes and corruption. Those who want to live in a fish bowl, be fed solely by the benevolence of their betters and avoid any critical thinking can bash Michael Hastings.
OTOH, those who want to know the truth want more real journalists like Hastings. That is why his book deserves 5 stars. There are way too few of his kind remaining in the US, which explains why our country is going down the drain. Without sunlight shed on the powerful, this Republic will collapse.
Guys like Hastings are the true patriots.
on May 23, 2012
Journalist Michael Hastings hit it big when his Rolling Stone profile of Stanley McChrystal, the hard-partying, wisecracking, egotistical, and irreverent Special Forces head of the US forces in Afghanistan, triggered the general's removal by President Obama.
The Operators tries to capitalize on that, expanding the profile to book length. Even if you never read the Rolling Stone piece, but read the news reports of the firestorm that it caused, you probably are already familiar with most of what would be of interest in the book. Much of the rest is rehash or filler coupled with a little insight.
If you're surprised by Hastings's revelations that the war in Afghanistan has little or nothing to do with 9/11 or alQueda, that no one seems to know why we are there or what to do there, that politicians and the military lie to the public and each other, that corruption is rife in Afghanistan, and that journalists often exchange ego strokes with politicians and the military, well, where have you been?
Told in a conversational style that sometimes borders on the comically egotistical (Was I really dealing with a spy or was she a high-end prostitute?), the book is a very easy read.
"The Operators" tells the story of author Hastings encounters with General McChrystal and his staff en route to publishing his 'Rolling Stone' article that ended the general's military career. My primary reaction is that author Hastings knowingly betrayed the trust of General McChrystal and his staff by revealing comments that he knew would create havoc for their careers. McChrystal and his head civilian PR flack - Duncan Booth, seemed to have made a major error by not establishing the typical 'ground rules' imposed on reporters. On the other hand, McChrystal had a track record of going over the edge - eg. fudging the account of Pat Tillman's death, publicly criticizing V.P. Biden's ideas on how to 'handle' Afghanistan, releasing an analysis that he'd been told to keep under wraps, etc. - maybe the general wanted this. A third reaction is that Hastings did a good job of both exposing the reality of Afghanistan - a hopeless encounter that has no realistic relevance to America's security, and the political complexity of dealing with America's military, acerbated by infighting between Holbrooke, Eikenberry, and Jones, as well as McChrystal's apparent competition with Petreus. Our commitment to democracy didn't help either, leading to a $300 million election in a populace where 70% couldn't read the ballot, and credible allegations of massive fraud followed (fake polling centers, ballot boxes filled in Pakistan, 200% turnout in some area) that were ignored so we could have a 'legitimate' partner.
America's 'coalition' in Afghanistan was less than met the eye. First, because of the 43 nations involved, only 9 contributed over 1,000 troops. In addition, NATO originally imposed 83 restrictions on its troops, the French paid ransoms to the Taliban, the Dutch only wanted to work about 8 hours/day, the Germans had to stay on base at night, and the Turks wouldn't leave Kabul.
Early in his presidency, Obama met with top military leaders, and appeared 'intimidated by the crowd' according to one military observer. Shortly thereafter, General McKiernan - our leader in Afghanistan, was supposedly fired because the Pentagon wasn't happy with his accepting 21,000 more troops instead of the original 30,000 asked for, and because he'd made weak impressions with political leaders. (The Pentagon has 27,000 working on PR and costing $4.7 billion/year, per Hastings - why not send all of them?) McChrystal was appointed to replace McKiernan, but expressed disappointment that his subsequent meeting with Obama was merely a photo op, without discussion of strategy, opinions, or experiences.
The 'modest' (compared to the 104 acre, $700 million Baghdad version) Kabul embassy early-on displayed its incompetence by requesting 180 new positions without first working out how they would be used. And it turned out that the term 'Taliban' was a catch-all name for locals who didn't want foreigners around - thus, the more troops, the more resentment and opposition.
McCrystal then asks for 40,000 more troops, Biden points out that there are less than 100 Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and the military fails to send Obama a revised plan per Obama's request. Obama fears Petreus will resign. (Hastings thinks Pakistan is the real reason we stay in Afghanistan.)
Bottom-Line: Afghanistan has been at war for 31 years, the Soviets killed over 1 million Afghanistani civilians (the U.S. killed about 3 million in Vietnam) - and our approach is not succeeding. American troops despise their Afghani counterparts, and vice-versa for numerous reasons, and its government and ours are not on the same page either. Regardless, I was very impressed by General McChrystal's response to the consternation caused by his efforts to tone down the American-led violence, including spending time out with a small unit on patrol after being requested to 'walk in their shoes' by a letter from its Staff Sergeant; he also personally visited again with that unit upon learning of the death of one of those troops that he met during that prior patrol.
on January 8, 2012
In one of his books on the Korean War, "This Kind of War," T. R. Fehrenbach observed: "Military men, who are willing to risk their lives have small sympathy with anyone unwilling to risk his office." Michael Hastings's "The Operators," explores this concept on two levels.
First, the main story is, of course, about General Stanley McChrystal and his coterie, who were tasked with trying to salvage this country's horrific immersion in Afghanistan's Vietnam-like deadly quicksand. The book relates their disdain for politicos--from the president on down--who do not seem to grasp the things that the military needs to accomplish the goals it's been given. Second, Hastings willingly (or even eagerly) burned his bridges as a reporter in order to use the resulting fire to shed needed light on workings of government that are all too often shielded from view and needed oversight and control. It is rare for journalists to risk a get-along persona in order to get it right.
McChrystal and his group gave Hastings unvarnished access in return for a hoped favorable feature in "Rolling Stone." They got the story, warts and all. "The Operators" relates all of this in a breezy somewhat self-deprecating style. It reminded me of Julie Salamon's superb behind-the-scenes making of the film from Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities," "The Devil's Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco." Here, however, the stakes are much, much more serious than the making of a film. The Afghan fiasco has wasted, and continues to squander American lives--killed and maimed by a nation-building war that cannot be won--as well as the billions of dollars we have poured and continue to pour into that venally corrupt state.
"The Operators" turns over the rock of pretense and reveals the mulch below. It is an important and fascinatingly revealing book.
I had a hard time deciding on a rating for this book. On one hand, Amazon's guidelines say that one star means "I hated it", and I did sort of hate it. It left me feeling angry, baffled, irritated, duped and in serious need of a bath. On the other hand, I could justify giving it five stars because of the importance of the material presented. Every American should know that our own government has considered Afghanistan to be somewhat of a cross between a joke and a lost cause since nearly the day we invaded. But I finally settled on an uncontroversial, if wimpy, four star rating, first because I have some issues with Hastings' writing style and second, and more importantly, because I don't want it to be about the rating, I want it to be about the book.
It took me a long time to get a feel for this book. The book alternates between chapters chronicling Hastings' travels and interviews with General Stanley McChrystal and his staff, vs. chapters providing various background stories culled from research (usually) rather than direct experience. This jumping back and forth makes the story rather choppy to read, and it's often difficult to understand the point of some of the background stories until later. The sheer number of players - generals, their staffs, ambassadors and their staffs, various politicians, Afghan leaders, warlords, etc. - also makes the book rather dizzying to read. And would it be too much to ask that Hastings keep his verb tenses consistent, at least within the same paragraph?
Hastings' style during the direct experience chapters is basically neutral, if not even somewhat approving, and its often difficult to distinguish the various players' voices from Hastings' own voice. It's only toward the end of the book that the dynamic between and among Hastings' feelings of personally liking the guys on McChrystal's staff, his sort of awe at being given access, his concern over betraying and losing such access, his feelings of distaste and disgust over what he sees and hears, and his own self-admitted war junkie cravings soldifies into some degree of clarity.
But once that dynamic is made clear, the book suddenly snaps into focus. We start to understand how important it is to examine how it is we know what we think we know about the war on Afghanistan. Very few journalists, especially English-speaking journalists, are covering the war directly. Most of what we know about the war (and all modern conflicts, for that matter) comes from journalists who, one way or another, have to get access through the U.S. military. Some embed with various military units. A few lucky others like Hastings get access to high-level figures like General McChrystal. Such access is hard to come by and easy to lose if journalists cross unwritten lines in the sand. And then they're stuck getting their war "news" the same way most "journalists" do - directly from White House press releases and briefings.
So what motivates a guy like Stan McChrystal to allow a guy like Michael Hastings nearly unfettered access to him and his staff over the course of several days in both Europe and Afghanistan? And what allowed them to act in the casual, non-self-observant way they did around Hastings? An examination of those questions tell us a lot about not only McChrystal and his staff, but about the isolation of top, elite military officials in their own self-reflecting hall of mirrors, the propagandizing of war, and the attitudes and expectations of the American people.
Perhaps the biggest factor in Hastings' access was his employer. Stan McChrystal wanted to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. After all, McChrystal s "cool" and liberal (he let his teenage son dye his hair purple) and Rolling Stone is "cool" and liberal, so it's a natural fit, right?
Furthermore, it rarely, if ever, seemed to dawn on McChrystal or his staff that perhaps they needed to watch their step and mind their p's and q's. That what seemed "cool" to them with their bird's-eye view of the war might not seem so "cool" to those of us on the ground who are paying for this war or, worse, those who have to fight it. It never seems to occur to them that the elite, shielded, jaded view of the war and the world in general would be anything objectionable to people as "cool" and liberal as they are. Because they are "cool" and liberal, they "get it", so they can get away with saying things that, had some conservative said it, would be proof of how racist, sexist, hyper-militarized and out of touch they are. If a conservative had been involved in the cover-up of torture or the blatant misrepresentation of Pat Tillman's death, that would just show how insensitive conservatives are. This book is both eye-opening and gut-wrenching in portraying just how meaningless party lines are in a war zone.
Another thing that struck me in this book is how the elite American military officials and politicians think that there is some kind of "reset" button that will make all the past failures magically turn to success. If we elect a "Hope and Change" liberal president to undo the Bush-era abuses, if we draw down on the "stupid" war in Iraq to focus on the "important" war in Afghanistan, if we replace this general with that one, or this ambassador with that one, or focus more or less on counterinsurgency or nation-building, or this strategy or that strategy, somehow our failures will disappear, our "mission" will be successful and the civilians will finally emerge throwing those long-awaited flowers at our tanks. So each new general, ambassador or other official has to spend their first several months trash-talking everything that went before, tearing everything down and re-inventing the wheel rather than learning from and correcting past mistakes. And when those civilians not only continue to not be grateful for all our efforts, but, bafflingly, continue to shoot at our soldiers, it just doesn't compute. Sure, we made some mistakes back then, but things are different now, so why can't "those people" see that? What are they, animals?
This book is another one of those difficult things to read that is nonetheless very important to struggle through if "Support the Troops" means more to you than a yellow ribbon slapped on your bumper. We have been fed a view of the war that comes almost exclusively from the protected confines of the elite military and political establishments, but that view bears so little resemblance to the actual reality as experienced by our soldier and the Afghan people that it is like an alternative reality. Or a theatre production, more accurately. One that even it's own producers don't buy.
The cover on this book is particularly apt and telling. The front cover shows an anonymous 4-star general, tie slightly askance, holding a whiskey in one hand and a gun in the other. The back cover shows an anonymous soldier with a beer in one hand and a knife in the other. These images perfectly capture the disconnect between the "Operators" - the movers and shakers who make things happen - and the soldiers on the ground - the ones things happen to. If you have no idea what's going on in Afghanistan, you need to read this book. If you think you know what's going on in Afghanistan, you need to read this book.
on April 28, 2012
I cannot review the entire book because I was not involved in most of the situations. However, the part where Mr. Hastings mentions my describing the staff as crazy monkeys is completely accurate. It was in fact Mr. Hasting's book that allowed me to piece together some of the simultaneous tom-foolery going on under McChrystal, but I was seeing my part back in Afghanistan. While McChrystal and clan were getting drunk in Paris, I was in Kandahar experiencing the fruits of their drunken wrath. Those days, about 15 to 17 April 2010, are when I began calling them "Crazy Monkeys," which invited so much negativity on myself. I admit -- that may have seemed a wild claim at the time, but it was obvious from Afghanistan..
I had no idea, until Mr. Hasting's book, how correct the Crazy Monkeys idea was. I now seriously wonder if McChrystal's crew was drunk when they gave me the hatchet. It made no sense otherwise. Mr. Hasting's describes one of the drunken officers working his Blackberry. There is a real chance that he sent an email that was heard around the world, which was the email that ended my work with US forces. This, in part, lead me to tell millions of Americans that McChrystal was incompetent and needed to be fired. The rest is history.
I cannot verify Mr. Hasting's reports, other than to say that his general characterization (from my view) of those April days are 5-star. McChrystal needed to take his four stars home.