Michael Hastings is a lucky guy. It's not every day an investigative journalist gains unfettered access to interview a major player in the fields of war or politics. "Usually when reporting on powerful public figures, the press advisor and I would have had a conversation that established what journalists call 'ground rules,' placing restrictions on what can and can't be reported. But as I'd already seen, [General Stanley] McChrystal and his team followed their own freewheeling playbook. When I arrived in Paris, [McChrystal's civilian press agent] repeatedly dismissed the idea of ground rules, telling me it wasn't the way the team did things." Like a professional baseball player who is suddenly presented with a fat pitch right over the plate, the author wastes no time in taking advantage of his rare opportunity. The book that results, "The Operators," is a home run that positively jumps out of the ballpark.
Hastings is a veteran journalist and writer with impressive credentials. Though only 32, his work has appeared in "Newsweek," "GQ," "The Washington Post" and "The Los Angeles Times." Currently he serves as a contributing editor at "Rolling Stone." Much of Hastings writing has centered around war zones, specifically Iraq and Afghanistan. The main focus of "Operators" hinges on several interviews the author had with General Stanley McChrystal, when the general was the head of operations for the war in Afghanistan. These were originally presented in a controversial Rolling Stone article entitled "The Runaway General" -- for which Hastings received a George Polk Award in journalism. In this book, Hastings combines that article with other reporting collected during several trips to Afghanistan and interviews conducted in Washington, D.C., between 2008 and 2010. The result is an original and compelling look into warfare in the 21st century.
"Operators" is far from being a sordid "kiss and tell" expose. Hastings has no chip on his shoulder, no agenda to skewer McChrystal or his team. Rather, the author is determined to simply be an honest reporter of what he sees and hears, even if it doesn't reflect well on the character of the people involved. "We'd grown accustomed to seeing the General as a superman -- and the press rarely challenged this narrative in their coverage. Here I realized, was a chance to tell a different story, to capture what the men running the war actually said and did. What I'd been seeing and hearing was distinctly human: frustration, arrogance, getting smashed, letting off stress."
While General McChrystal happens to be the pitcher that Hastings sends to the showers -- McChrystal was fired from his post shortly after the article came out -- the attitudes the general and his team express are far from isolated. For example, when it comes to the Pentagon's assessment of the president, "Operators" presents the more or less universal agreement among top officials that Obama: "doesn't get their culture, doesn't get their wars. The wars, to Obama, are campaign issues. His primary relationship to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is how they affect his electoral fortunes." Hastings sums up the Pentagon's comparison between Obama and Geroge W. Bush quite succinctly: "Bush gave the generals what they wanted, and the generals like to get what they want."
"Operators" is like a review by a restaurant critic who enters a four-star restaurant and is appalled that the staff spends most of their time in the john drinking, complaining and insulting the owner behind his back. In this case, the wait-staff is the Pentagon, and the dishes being served are the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And while McChrystal is the waiter who receives the most attention, by the end of the book, it is clear his only real sin is that his was the voice that carried over the transom.
The theme of information management is ever present in "Operators." Like rock stars, all the major players in the book travel with entourages, teams of communications and PR experts, whose main job is to make sure their principal looks simply marvelous. In light of this culture where image is everything, it is doubly ironic that McChrystal and his team should make the rookie mistake of lifting the curtain and revealing the actual man behind it.
The book's title relates to the fraternal bond, the loyalty to one's fellow soldiers, which in military culture, quite simply trumps everything. Without this, as one of McChrystal's aides puts it, success is impossible. "??'The operators are the guys on the X,' Dave riffed. The X was the target; the bull's-eye; the spot on the satellite where the action went down. 'Everyone else is supporting the operator. But the operator doesn't get anywhere near the X if the other guys aren't doing their jobs.'?"
As one might expect from a writer at "Rolling Stone," Hastings' style retains a distinct and delightfully dry Hunter S. Thompson flavor: "Dubai was the GPS point where the hypocritical and corrupt West met the corrupt and hypocritical East, ensuring that hypocrisy and cash were the only two lubricants in the clash of civilizations."
"The Operators" is a book with broad appeal. It's easy to read, the stories compelling, the subject matter topical, and it raises questions about how our leaders make the life and death decisions that affect us all. This book is a grand slam.