I’m no fan of Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone piece on McChrystal
I left this as a comment on "Beers on the Table: Journalists and the Public Figures They Cover," a post by Andrew Exum.
I just got around to actually reading the entire Rolling Stone piece. It left me pissed.
(Quick disclosure about me: 1) I used to be a newspaper reporter; 2) I’ve never covered combat or served in the military; 3) Although invading Afghanistan was completely justified, I think we’ve deployed troops to a centrifuge, to a non-nation practically designed to fly apart into its various component regions and ethnicities; 4) I wish we could just walk away but don’t think there’s any moral way to do so at this point; 5) I believe that COIN — by which I mean COIN that adheres to the principles and arithmetic laid out in the field manual — is America’s best hope for a military approach that’s remotely consistent with human rights and other values that matter to me.
Some thoughts …
The most insubordinate words in the Rolling Stone piece are not from McChrystal or his staff. They come in these two paragraphs:
"One soldier shows me the list of new regulations the platoon was given. ‘Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force,’ the laminated card reads. For a soldier who has traveled halfway around the world to fight, that’s like telling a cop he should only patrol in areas where he knows he won’t have to make arrests. ‘Does that make any fucking sense?’ asks Pfc. Jared Pautsch. ‘We should just drop a fucking bomb on this place. You sit and ask yourself: What are we doing here?’
"The rules handed out here are not what McChrystal intended – they’ve been distorted as they passed through the chain of command – but knowing that does nothing to lessen the anger of troops on the ground. ‘Fuck, when I came over here and heard that McChrystal was in charge, I thought we would get our fucking gun on,’ says Hicks, who has served three tours of combat. ‘I get COIN. I get all that. McChrystal comes here, explains it, it makes sense. But then he goes away on his bird, and by the time his directives get passed down to us through Big Army, they’re all fucked up – either because somebody is trying to cover their ass, or because they just don’t understand it themselves. But we’re fucking losing this thing.’"
I can sit here and try to argue with Pautsch and Hicks. I can appeal to fellow liberals to recognize that forsaking COIN strengthens the “drop a fucking bomb on this place” crowd. But forget that for now.
These candid words from Pautsch and Hicks matter more than any of the gossip-worthy quotes from McChrystal and his team. Similarly, the candor in a book like "The Good Soldiers" matters more. This candor — these boots-on-the-ground dispatches — are precisely what Hastings’ piece will slam the door on. He’s being celebrated for this. He’s a REAL journalist because he’s willing to burn his bridges and everybody else’s bridges. Well, bullshit.
The McChrystal & Co. quotes would matter if they illuminated some larger truth. They’d matter, for example, if McChrystal badmouthed COIN or Obama or Biden or Petraeus in front of soldiers like Pautsch and Hicks. But he didn’t. As Hastings documented, McChrystal was out there making this incredibly difficult case that Pautsch and Hicks and their buddies should show restraint and put their lives at greater risk for the good of the mission and the good of the country.
Glenn Greenwald and others I respect are making the case that Hastings is “such a good journalist” because he refuses to be a stenographer.
But Hastings is simply a different kind of stenographer. He seems to have left it to the fact-checkers to read the shocking quotes back to McChrystal. The piece could have been WAY more illuminating if Hastings had called McChrystal out, had asked him to explain why the words didn’t amount to insubordination, had asked whether he’d tolerate that kind of talk from his troops, had insisted on learning from the man himself what kind of stress or carelessness or frustration or egocentrism would lead seasoned officers to speak so harshly and unguardedly. If Hastings had done so, he might have been yelled at, might have been left behind in Paris, might NOT have been able to spend a month with McChrystal. But forget that. Forget that fast. Forget it because the hero narrative for Hastings involves us accepting the idea that he boldly, bravely didn’t care about whether his actions would cost him access.
I apologize for going on and on. Just one more point.
McChrystal screwed himself. I cannot begin to understand why he gave this kind of access to ANY outsider, whether a journalist or a civilian contractor or an eavesdropping bellhop.
COIN, on the other hand, got sucker-punched. COIN didn’t run its mouth. COIN didn’t get drunk at Kitty O’Shea’s. But it is COIN, much more than McChrystal, that got slimed.
Take this sentence: “The COIN doctrine, bizarrely, draws inspiration from some of the biggest Western military embarrassments in recent memory: France’s nasty war in Algeria (lost in 1962) and the American misadventure in Vietnam (lost in 1975).”
Especially with the gratuitous, inflammatory word “bizarrely,” that sentence simply does not fit with what I’ve read about COIN. In Nagl’s book, for example, the whole point is that America failed to adapt enough in Vietnam and should have modeled itself on a “learning army” like the British in Malaya. That insight does not amount to drawing “inspiration from some of the biggest Western military embarrassments in recent memory.”
When it comes to COIN, Hastings seems either sloppy or confused or intent on making sure readers mistake his straw-man caricature for a scrupulous critique. Even as Hastings correctly notes the severe restrictions McChrystal placed on the use of deadly force, he leaves the fuzzy impression that all civilian casualties are COIN’s fault.
We should have a debate about whether COIN is feasible, about whether we can reasonably ask Pfc. Pautsch to go home in a body bag because he holds his fire on an insurgent whose death would create ten new insurgents. That’s actually an important debate. Carried out intelligently, it’s a debate that can prevent America from rushing into future Iraqs and Afghanistans. But what Hastings has done here threatens to make the debate far dumber.
UPDATE (6/26/10, 11:17 p.m.): A TPM item headlined “Rolling Stone Editor Explains Fact-Checking Of McChrystal Profile” makes me feel I was too charitable in what I wrote above. I wrote, “He seems to have left it to the fact-checkers to read the shocking quotes back to McChrystal.”
But Rolling Stone didn’t even do that. Here’s what TPM reports:
(Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will) Dana said that, contra a report in Politico, neither McChrystal nor anyone else was shown the article before it ran.
"We don’t read the quotes back directly. If there’s any assertion made that’s factual in a quote, we check that independently, and we talk whenever possible with the person who said the quote to make sure they said that. We don’t let them retract the quotes," Dana explains.
He said a Rolling Stone staffer did the fact-checking on the piece and the process was “very smooth.” Writer Michael Hastings “is a pro,” Dana says.
"Everything was backed up. He had all his research, all his notes."
Dana said that one incendiary section of the story in which an unnamed adviser to McChrystal says that the general “was pretty disappointed” after his first meeting with an “uncomfortable and intimidated” President Obama was checked against the transcript of Hastings’ interview with the adviser. McChrystal himself was not asked by the magazine’s fact-checker about his impression of the Obama meeting.
So I was wrong to write that Hastings “seems to have left it to the fact-checkers to read the shocking quotes back to McChrystal.” Nobody, in fact, read the shocking quotes back to McChrystal. This is not about letting McChrystal “retract the quotes,” in Dana’s false-choice wording. This is about confronting McChrystal with his own supposed words. His reaction might have been even more damning.
My goodness. Have the guts to stab a guy in the chest.