Work and Days

Rolling Stone, Michael Hastings, and the McChrystalites—Sort of Deserve Each Other

The Washington Post publishes a long list of fact check requests sent to Gen. McChrystal before the Michael Hastings’ interview occurred. One could draw some legitimate inferences from them, in no particular order of importance:

1) Rolling Stone did not ask for confirmation of the most damaging slurs against superiors like Obama, Biden, Holbrooke, etc., which might suggest (you think?) that all along they were going to publish a very different narrative than the one implied by their rather tame queries for confirmation.

2) The reporter, Michael Hastings, has recently offered, postfacto, a few interviews, perhaps summed up by his suggestions that he is a very principled reporter who usually does not do “puff pieces” in order to gain access — unlike lesser others to whom he mock apologizes in advance should his more honest hard-hitting exposes have now endangered their genres. Not quite. It is clear that Hastings ingratiated himself to McChrystal’s staff as a kindred unconventional spirit — and for some bizarre reason, the latter actually believed that this newfound embedded pal with whom they joshed around with was going to write a sort of inside encomium on their hipster commander, hence their strange, almost slavish cooperation. If anything, I find the obsequious sort of reporter who gains intimate access with the implicit understanding that he will be largely complimentary more intellectually honest than a disingenuous Hastings, who burrows in under false impressions, and masquerades his ego-driven desire for fame and status by a sort of pseudo-“sh-t happens” bohemianism. It is just a question of how one chooses to sell his soul — or as my grandfather used to say about fruit packers (and who could have advised McChrystal), “it’s always better dealing with an upfront crook.”

3) There are a lot of errors in Hastings’ draft that are corrected by McChrystal’s staff — and these are all, except in one instance, the non-controversial ones, suggesting (you think?) Rolling Stone did not want the staff to know of the disaster that was coming. Note again how sneaky Rolling Stone was — asking for matter-of-fact confirmations of mostly mundane things that are intended to cement the picture of McChrystal as a gifted warrior of the sort that might even appeal to Rolling Stone‘s audience: a misunderstood Obamian that likes martial arts and wars with stuffy DC superiors. (I imagine that the staff wanted Hastings to know — off the record rather than to publish — that McChrystal voted for Obama as a sort of added incentive to deify their boss.)

4) So in just one case, Rolling Stone tips its hand by asking for confirmation of the fact that McChrystal voted for Obama; they are told explicitly by the staff that such information is inappropriate for publication (but apparently not for background information), and why — and so asked that it not  be printed, suggesting their growing worry (you think?) that a mildly controversial fact would be published (which turned out to be tame in comparison to what they did not dream was about to be unleashed). Again, note the stupidity: a military officer is at the 11th hour asking Rolling Stone not to publish an embarrassing fact about Gen. McChrystal’s political affiliation — and they seem to assume that good old Rolling Stone would not! (Sort of like asking the Taliban not to bury too many IEDs.)

5) I think we finally understand what McChrystal and his staff were up to: they are terribly naive and bedazzled by a sort of Gonzo-wannabe reporter who, they hoped, would do a weird Zen-like hagiography on their boss, perhaps confirming their image of him as an against-the-grain warrior-philosopher not fully appreciated either in or out of the military, the ultimate antithesis to a Gen. Jim Jones or Gen. Eikenberry.

6) The contorted story of how Hastings probably misrepresented himself, and the duplicity of Rolling Stone don’t matter much, inasmuch as many of the things McChrystal’s staff indulged in border on conduct unbecoming officers, about which military protocols do not distinguish how knowledge of such unbecoming behavior reaches military superiors, only that it does. I think that explains why the staff has not contested too much how they were had, inasmuch as in theory their crude remarks to a reporter might well have been grounds for a preliminary military court investigation. Indeed, Rolling Stone knew that they had information (on tape?) that was explosive, hence their glee at printing whatever they wished; McChyrstal must have realized it (hence the offer of resignation), and the Pentagon and others must now hope that the dismissal will be enough of a sacrifice that any further action would be superfluous. (By that, I mean, if there were a transcript of a Major and his staff trash-talking about McChrystal in the manner he and his staff trash-talked about their superiors, he might well have been brought up on charges.)

In short, each gamer and conniver did not quite get out of this sordid episode what they had hoped: Instead of Bruce Lee with four stars surrounded by a brilliant but misunderstood Lawrence of Arabia staff,  we get a near insubordinate general desperate for his supposedly unique “story” to get out, surrounded by a crowd  of well-meaning groupies — all to be exposed by a duplicitous Hunter Thompson wannabe who now finally “makes it” with the scalp of a four-star — all against the backdrop of an anti-military tabloid that can’t quite believe its good fortunate that its intended victim gladly put his head in their noose, and all for their ultimate aim of getting the U.S. out of Afghanistan in defeat and shame.

As my other grandfather, the old Swedish horse-breaker, used to say, “What a bunch.”

My very limited sympathies are, of course, with a distinguished general, who is a better, braver sort that those who did him in. But that said, his laxity and absence of judgment — and, yes, ego — did an enormous amount of damage at a time of war, and all of the ripples (changes in command, effect on the enemy, political insider stuff with the Afghans and at the White House) are not quite yet over with. (One can see Nemesis at work yet again [she’s busy with sanctimonious Al Gore as the sex poodle after flying off from the Edwards’ mansion to circle around the Katrina-BP Gulf], as McChrystal should have learned from his early freelancing comments not to press his luck with the deadly goddess.)

But readers, you’ve already beat me to the moral of the story: God help us all when a four-star general really believes he can use Rolling Stone to help get a message out that might help us defeat the Taliban and help himself in the process.

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