Michael Hastings caused a stir when his Rolling Stone magazine profile of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal revealed how the general and his entourage openly bashed the Obama administration for its lack of leadership. The repercussions resulted in Obama unceremoniously firing McChrystal, who had been regarded as a genius of Special Forces and who was then the architect of U.S. military policy in Afghanistan.
Hastings expands on his observations in "The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan," a book-length account of what he presents as an insider's look at the divisions over Afghanistan between the military and its civilian leadership.
Hastings paints a picture of the top levels of the Army's private pessimism about the prospect of success in Afghanistan. In what may be his most illuminating -- and revealing -- argument, he also dissects what he sees as the Washington beltway "political and media class" for a cozy I'll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine relationship that leaves the American public in the dark over such seminal things as how well a war is being conducted.
As the rogue general, McChrystal's career escaped any fatal wounds from revelations of his involvement in prison camp torture or his complicity in the coverup of the friendly-fire death of national hero Pat Tillman. But it could not escape the open disrespect presented in Hastings' Rolling Stone piece. It was a stark contrast to largely positive portrayals McChrystal enjoyed from the likes of CBS' "60 Minutes" and the New York Times.
I often wondered how Hastings could infiltrate the inner sanctum of McChrystal and come away with the gonzo profile, which was antithetical to McChrystal's portrayal previously. It would be easy to dismiss the story as the fabrications of a journalist trying to make a name for himself and a magazine known to shave the truth around the edges. Yet Rolling Stone itself didn't seem to recognize what it had in its story, "The Runaway General." Rather than shouting it out for the bombshell it turned out to be when it went online, the story was gently promoted with a few words; and Lady Gaga, not McChrystal, took the cover in print.
Obviously aware of the concerns over his reporting, Hastings offers an explanation, claiming the McChrystal crowd knew exactly what they would get from him: a portrait of a rock star general with a healthy disregard for authority, part of an aggressive media strategy to build Brand McChrystal as the greatest general of his generation. If you buy that explanation, then you buy Hastings' bit.
The disdain Hastings shows for the ways of "the Washington psyche" is a healthy one. The incestuous nature of Washington and how it fails to reflect the realities of the rest of the nation is evident in what he calls "the media-military-industrial complex," or, seen another way, in the 24-hour news cycle of the upcoming presidential campaign, with the likes of Chris Matthews dropping in to a Des Moines coffeehouse to gauge the feelings of the rubes on the eve of the Iowa caucuses.
For that alone, "The Operators" has value. Whether Hastings can build a career as the outsider looking in will remain to be seen.
Mark Brunswick covers military affairs for the Star Tribune.