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Customer Review

204 of 225 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bob Woodward, without worrying about protecting sources or access, January 6, 2012
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This review is from: The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-10 of 14 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 13, 2012 7:54:03 AM PST
Afia says:
Now this is how to write a review. Outstanding!

Posted on Jan 13, 2012 1:27:45 PM PST
Jeremie says:
wow! what a superb review! I hope the book is as good as the review!

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 13, 2012 1:59:12 PM PST
Haha...thanks to both of you. I think the book is really good...but it did leave me with some questions, as I mentioned. Still - it's engaging, interesting and I think very honest. It's when Hastings is not present in the story that it slows down a bit.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 18, 2012 2:01:18 PM PST
panopticon7 says:
those are some piercing insights. if you didn't already know you have a book in you regarding your own time in the field, know it now.

Posted on Jan 28, 2012 4:58:05 PM PST
prisrob says:
Terrific review- will certainly buy and read now!

Posted on Jan 28, 2012 5:00:19 PM PST
prisrob says:
Saw Hastings on "Up With Chris' MSNBC today.
Terrific interview
Your review is right on.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 29, 2012 10:34:34 AM PST
I am impressed with myself that I had made the point about how important, newsworthy figures would still talk to Hastings, despite his notoriety, and he just scored the recent interview with Wikileaks Julian Assange....

Posted on Feb 2, 2012 3:10:06 PM PST
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2012 4:53:10 PM PST
Point, missed.

Posted on Feb 4, 2012 8:19:18 AM PST
I have not read the book, now I will. Superb review! I am presently translating the German War Archives "Der Weltkrieg" of WWI. The similarity of that culture and the environment described by Hastings and commented on by Woodward is truly striking (Although I am sure that it is probably the same in most military systems). I have no idea if transparency should prevail, however I am positive that arrogance like this has no place where so many lives are at stake. That is deadly.
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