The McChrystal Apologists Ignoring McChrystal’s Own Take

The WSJ has a scathing critique of Michael Hastings’ The Operators (see Spencer’s more interesting take here). While it complains that Hastings doesn’t profile local indigenous groups and conflates hating the Afghan war with being antiwar, its chief complaint is that “antiwar” journalists damage war efforts.

During the Vietnam War, the generation of David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan transformed America’s mainstream media into a hotbed of antiwar and antimilitary muckraking. By the time a major war effort returned, in 2003, that generation had grown too old to visit the trenches, allowing the emergence of Generation X reporters like Dexter Filkins and George Packer, who did not share their predecessors’ contempt for the military. Most Americans welcomed the change.

Not so Michael Hastings, as we learn in “The Operators,” his account of events in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011. Mr. Hastings asserts that this generational change drove him to write “The Runaway General,” the Rolling Stone article of June 2010 that doomed the career of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan. With characteristic acerbity, Mr. Hastings laments that his press colleagues have abandoned the spirit of Vietnam, when “war had been exposed as the Giant Lying Machine, in Halberstam’s words.” Instead, he says, they write glowing profiles of generals and other officials in the hope of gaining greater access to sources.

Mr. Hastings singles out, as an example of such truckling, “Stanley McChrystal’s Long War,” an October 2009 profile by Mr. Filkins in the New York Times. Yet the most cursory reading of that piece reveals that Mr. Filkins soberly detailed Gen. McChrystal’s mistakes as well as his triumphs. Mr. Filkins is perhaps now a target because he publicly expressed doubts about “The Runaway General” after its publication. Charlie Rose, on his PBS program, asked Mr. Filkins about quotes in the article that appeared to show Gen. McChrystal and his staff disrespecting President Obama, Vice President Biden, National Security Adviser James Jones and Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, not to mention the French. Mr. Filkins responded: “I spent a lot of time with General McChrystal and the people around him, and I never heard that.”

[snip]

Like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, Mr. Hastings ignores the harm that his reporting caused to America’s overseas interests. The firing of Gen. McChrystal removed the one American who enjoyed the confidence of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and of Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of staff of Pakistan’s army.

Hastings is a bad journalist, according to reviewer Mark Moyar, because he exposes that war is built on lies. (Never mind that Moyar provides no proof for his claim that “most Americans” welcomed having shills cover wars rather than journalists.)

Which is why McChrystal’s own comments about war and lies–as reported by Hastings–are so interesting. McChrystal–who, as Hastings reminded, had been a spokesperson during the Iraq War–admitted that the military co-opted the media to cover up the (correct) fact that they believed the war was a bad idea.

We started talking about larger issues within the media, which I felt he was in a unique position to discuss. McChrystal was a spokesperson at the Pentagon during the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, his first na­tional exposure to the public.

“We co-opted the media on that one,” he said. “You could see it com­ing. There were a lot of us who didn’t think Iraq was a good idea.”

Co-opted the media. I almost laughed. Even the military’s former Pen­tagon spokesperson realized—at the time, no less—how massively they were manipulating the press. The ex–White House spokesperson, Scott McClellan, had said the same thing: The press had been “complicit en­ablers” before the Iraq invasion, failing in their “watchdog role, focusing less on truth and accuracy and more on whether the campaign [to sell the war] was succeeding.”

I rattled off a few names of other journalists. I named the writer who’d just done the profile on him for The Atlantic, Robert Kaplan.

“Totally co-opted by the military,” he said.

Of course, the other important thing Hastings’ reporting exposes is the disdain with which those waging our wars hold those ostensibly in charge of them. Which strikes me as an entirely related issue.

It was not Hastings’ reporting, after all, that doomed McChrystal’s career. It was his comments and those his aides made in his presence. Along with exposing them, Hastings also shows that the generals–McChrystal, at least–has some similar doubts about Afghanistan as he had about Iraq.

The disagreement, then, between those so hysterical about Hastings’ reporting and those who find it valuable has more to do with fundamental ideas of democracy than it does with whether he depicted the Afghanistan war truthfully.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

5 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    The message I take away from the WSJ? Messengers who deliver the “wrong” message will be denounced by messengers of the ruling elite who deliver the “right” message.

  2. lakeeffectsnow says:

    this was an interesting response to read from the Ackerman @ Wired interview:

    Hastings: What I’m writing about in those scenes were the soldiers. They get it. I’ve been around the block, I’ve spent a lot of time with a lot of different infantry units, and those soldiers about as mutinous as I’ve seen since Baghdad 2006. This wasn’t like cherrypicking Angry Joe.(? who is Angry Joe ?) This was really a unit-wide mutiny. McChrystal’s staff didnt see that. But McChrystal himself did see that, and he knew it was too late.(? Why was it too late? what was too late?)

    what Baghdad 2006 mutiny is Hastings referring to?
    what usa troops in Afghan were mutinous?

    anybody have any light to shed on this?

  3. lakeeffectsnow says:

    this was another very interesting response from that same interview:

    Hastings: I think you’re underestimating the power of the Pentagon. They play this happy warrior shtick but it’s nonsense. And if you look at what President Obama has done, he’s done his best to neuter and take control of the Pentagon. [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates is out, McChrystal is out, Petraeus is out of uniform, and there are no more celebrity generals.

    this is a very astute observation. the cheney/bush (along with rumsfeld) regime encouraged or allowed the pentagon to run amok / get out of hand. this has been very subtle manuevering on the current admin’s part to get that frankenstein somewhat back under control.

  4. Bob Schacht says:

    @lakeeffectsnow:

    …the cheney/bush (along with rumsfeld) regime encouraged or allowed the pentagon to run amok / get out of hand. this has been very subtle manuevering on the current admin’s part to get that frankenstein somewhat back under control. …

    I think you are overlooking some things here. In their first year, before 9/11, Rumsfeldt was trying to transform the military into a smaller, more mobile force– much like Obama has said he wants to do now. 9/11 represents a big shift in thinking– at least among the senior elements of DOD.

    But Rumsfeldt was running into resistance from the same folks that you are probably referring to: The middle rank bureaucracy, below the level of the political appointees.

    Bob in AZ

  5. liberalrob says:

    @lakeeffectsnow:

    ? who is Angry Joe ?

    I don’t have an exact etymology of the term, but from the context I think Hastings was trying to say he didn’t talk to one guy who was bent and then use him to claim the whole unit was mutinous.

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