I have mixed emotions about publishing this blog the day after Australia’s worst single-day fatalities since Vietnam. On the one hand, the post may seem a little insensitive; on the other, it’s arguably never been more timely.
What’s clear is that regardless of what you think of the US’s (and our) involvement in Afghanistan (and I’ll wholly admit to being wholly in the ‘against’ camp), things are not going well.
I picked up Michael Hasting’s The Operators on ABC journalist Naomi Woodley’s advice—and I have to thank her. While not quite in the realm of uber high benchmark Race of a Lifetime, which I rabidly recommend to anyone who’ll listen, Hasting’s book is the first I’ve read in a while that unpacks complex, fraught, of-the-moment issues in an incredibly insightful, game-changing, haunting manner.
The Operators is the extended, book version of an explosive Rolling Stones article Hastings wrote after being allowed inside ‘the bubble’ of General Stanley McChrystal, AKA the guy in charge of the US troops’ stay in Afghanistan.
Courting the media and arguably keen to make the cover of the iconic Rolling Stone magazine and impress his son, a musician, McChrystal allowed Hastings to accompany him and his team during a PR trip to Europe as well as spend time with them in Afghanistan. It wasn’t an unusual allowance. What was unusual was that McChrystal and his team were far more frank and unguarded than Hastings ever expected to find.
Over the course of a few Almost Famous-ilk weeks, which included an unexpectedly extended stay with them in Europe courtesy of the Icelandic ash cloud, Hastings witnessed the team going off message. These indiscretions (if that’s the best way to describe them) included them criticising President Obama for not supporting the war and effectively saying it was unlikely they’d catch Osama bin Laden.
Hasting’s subsequently published article didn’t put McChrystal on the Rolling Stone cover (Lady Gaga commandeered it as he and McChrystal had joked), but the article did go explosively viral (that’s an, er, technical term)—so much so that it saw McChrystal summoned back to the US and summarily fired.
Hastings’ incisively written book is unsettling on many, many levels. It exemplifies the constant tension between journalist and subject, and the heightened tension of embedded journalism.
‘You’re not going to fuck us, are you?’ one officer asks him, to which Hasting’s gave his standard reply: ‘I’m going to write a story. Some of the stuff you’ll like, some of the stuff you probably won’t like.’
Later in the book, he outlines his position further:
I knew McChrystal’s team wouldn’t be happy with the way the story was shaping up. It was the classic journalist dilemma. Janet Malcolm had famously described journalise as the art of seduction and betrayal. Any reporter who didn’t see journalise as ‘morally indefensible’ was either ‘too stupid’ or ‘too full of himself’, she wrote. I disagreed. Without shutting the door on the possibility that I was both stupid and full of myself, I’d never bought into the seduction and betrayal conceit. At most, journalism—particularly when writing about media-hungry public figures—was like the seduction of a prostitute. The relationship was transactional. They weren’t talking to me because they liked me or because I impressed them; they were talking to me because they wanted the cover of Rolling Stone.
I think he’s 90% right about that. Rolling Stone’s rep is what got him in the door and leant him an immediate, ‘rock star cool’ legitimacy. But while there’s an element of transaction—McChrystal needs the media as much as they need him and he’s after good media coverage—the emphasis is on the word ‘good’. He might be in charge of a war, but he’s human—he hopes to be liked and trusts that journalists will show him in a flattering, heart-in-the-right place light.
I’m still confused why the media officer didn’t set ground rules/wasn’t trying to get the guys to be more on message at the time. It makes me think he thought there was a tacit agreement in place that Hastings would overlook the off-the-cuff honesty, or at least buff its rough edges. That or they were just a little naïve.
That naivety perhaps explains why McChrystal was upset that Obama wasn’t falling over himself to throw money, troops, and anything else McChrystal asked for for Afghanistan. McChrystal seems not to fully comprehend that Obama, the very antithesis of gun-toting George Dubya, was elected on an anti-war stance and was never, ever going to be blindly complying with his more-muscle, more-money requests. He also seems completely oblivious to the fact that Obama inherited a financial crisis of epic, worldwide proportions and that an offshore ‘war’ costing the US in the vicinity of $600 billion annually might not be helping him balance the budget.
McChrystal’s lucky Obama didn’t tell them they had a drop-dead date and that there’d be no more funding beyond that (which is what I’d be tempted to do were I in Obama’s place—yes, it would be ugly, but no more or less than them staying in there fighting and further fueling a futile ‘war’).
Which hints at the book’s other, necessarily troubling theme of (if you’ll forgive me for paraphrasing the famous saying) war: what is it good for? If The Operators’ findings are anything to go by: nothing. Worse, the very reason for the US being in Afghanistan seems shakier than ever. Al-Qaeda wasn’t really setting up shop, bin Laden turned out to be in Pakistan and not Afghanistan, and troops found themselves caught up not in fighting terrorism but a decades-old civil war.
This sentiment is summed up well in the resignation letter of Matthew Hoh, who was only the third senior American government official to have resigned for reasons of conscience. Hastings quotes it here:
To put [it] simply: I fail to see the value or the worth in continued US casualties of expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war. … If the history of Afghanistan is one great stage play, the United States is no more than a supporting actor, among several previously, in a tragedy that not only pits tribes valleys, clans, villages, and families against one another, but, from at least the end of King Zahir Shah’s reign, has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated, and moderate of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate, and traditional.
He goes on to liken Afghanistan to Vietnam, something we’re increasingly seeing and hearing around the world:
Our support for [the Afghan] government, coupled with a misunderstanding of the insurgency’s true nature, reminds me horribly of our involvement with South Vietnam; an unpopular and corrupt government we backed at the expense of our Nation’s own internal peace, against an insurgency whose nationalism we arrogantly and ignorantly mistook as a rival to our own Cold War ideology … If honest, our state strategy of securing Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaeda resurgence or regrouping would require us to additionally invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc.
Thousands of our men and women have returned home with physical and mental wounds, some that will never heal or will only worsen with time. The dead return only in bodily form to be received by families who must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can anymore be made. As such, I submit my resignation.
I’ve always been vehemently opposed to us (Australia) supporting the US in both Iraq and Afghanistan—we have no business being in either, the operations are operating under misguided and false pretences, and even if they have the best of intentions, violence begets only violence. But nor is there any pleasure in ‘being right’ (whatever that might mean) and taking the moral high ground doesn’t make yesterday’s five-death day any less sobering.
Hasting’s book might have ‘fucked’ McChrystal, but perhaps necessarily so—The Operators highlights futility of the Afghanistan occupation and the too-high human and financial cost of a no-longer-clearly-defined ‘war’.