My following book review appears in today’s Sydney Morning Herald:
A journalist with access to a superpower’s military machine refuses to toe the line.
“I went into journalism to do journalism, not advertising,” independent American journalist Michael Hastings told The Huffington Post in 2010. ”My views are critical but that shouldn’t be mistaken for hostile – I’m just not a stenographer.”
Such a mindset is what makes this book a compelling read and ensures its status as one of the most devastating and incisive works on the Afghanistan war since Washington and its allies invaded in 2001.
Hastings concludes, after spending extensive time with generals and military advisers, as well as reporters who hang on their every word, that the conflict was lost years ago. The warped logic of the war, the author states, is that, ”we’re there because we’re there. And because we’re there, we’re there some more.”
Afghanistan today has nothing to do with September 11, 2001, ”terrorist havens” or al-Qaeda. ”It didn’t matter that in Afghanistan, the US military had come up short again and again,” Hastings argues. ”What mattered is that they tried. The simple and terrifying reality, forbidden from discussion in America [and mostly in the mainstream media in Australia], was that despite spending $600 billion a year on the military, despite having the best fighting force the world had ever known, they were getting their asses kicked by illiterate peasants who made bombs out of manure and wood.”
Hastings is that rare journalist who doesn’t believe in venerating military figures who give him access in Washington and American war zones. A key aspect of his investigation is its brutal excoriation of embedded media and the lack of accountability in the pundit class. His staccato writing feels immediate in today’s war debate.
He cites a meeting with a German reporter in Berlin in 2010, where the man says he backs the Afghanistan war and acknowledges fears it may not work out. Hastings is stunned: ”Julian was prepared to take ownership of the position he took and the consequences of it. I’d rarely heard an American journalist express any such regrets or take responsibility for the politics they promoted. Maybe it was a European thing.”
Hastings was commissioned in 2010 to write a profile for Rolling Stone, where he’s now a contributing editor, of Stanley McChrystal, the lauded then-commanding general of international and US forces in Afghanistan. The journalist was given nearly full access to the general and his staff as they travelled across Europe attempting to sell their counter-insurgency plan.
What Hastings found both shocked and pleased him. Though he loved the buzz of being close to McChrystal and quickly felt like a trusted member of the team – the allure of ”access” is what makes most corporate journalists little better than transcribers – he quickly remembered he was a reporter there to write a story. Despite being asked by senior military staff to exclude details of drunken adventures in European bars and meeting rooms, disparaging comments about President Barack Obama’s team are openly expressed and Hastings knew his aim: ”The access I’d gotten was unprecedented. But what do you do with it? Bury the story? Write a puff piece to ensure further access? Or write what actually happened?”
Hastings was under no illusion about how McChrystal and his team saw him. ”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.” The magazine chose Lady Gaga for this coveted position, damaging the general’s desire to impress a younger generation with his prowess.
Hastings’s scoop was seen as shocking not because he was an anti-war activist but because he had seen the human cost of Iraq and Afghanistan on soldiers and civilians and refused to provide cover for those responsible.
The story was explosive and McChrystal was forced to resign. He was replaced by General David Petraeus (now CIA director), a man Obama believed could help salvage the failing Afghanistan war through an innovative counter-insurgency strategy. It failed spectacularly and Hastings explains why by quoting a former UN official in Kabul. ”There has never been a strategy to get rid of the warlords, who are the key problem,” John Matisonn says. ”The average Afghan hates them, whether they’re backed by the Taliban or the Americans. They see them as criminals. They know that the warlords are fundamentally undermining the rule of law.”
The Rolling Stone feature was expanded into this book and Hastings retains high-level access to a military and political establishment that often can’t speak for itself against misguided policies. Like Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks, Hastings believes in full transparency for our political class. The American and Australian mainstream media continue giving air time to people such as Petraeus and Australian counter-insurgency ”expert” David Kilcullen – who now runs the Caerus Associates consultancy firm in Washington DC – despite their disastrous records in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both nations, foreign forces merely empowered one group of thugs over another, with money and guns, and now the results are clear to see.
Hastings, whose first book, I Lost My Love in Baghdad, details his war reporting in post-2003 Iraq and the murder of his partner by a suicide bomber, doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid enjoyed by many of the ”national security” correspondents who populate our media landscape. For them, the ”war on terror” has been a wild decade of conflict. Private chats with generals and their minions constitute much journalism, while the public wonders why ”our” boys continue being killed by an effective insurgency. Afghan deaths and voices are largely invisible.
Hastings’s article about McChrystal was instructive, he writes, ”as the political and media class saw the story as a threat to their schmoozy relationship – their very existence and social life”.
After a decade observing the US in conflict, a superpower both uninterested in understanding its opponents and confused when being beaten by smarter forces, Hastings concludes that our leaders lie about the real purpose of the ”war on terror”. Embedded journalists must take their share of the blame for perpetuating the delusion.
Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist working on a book about disaster capitalism.
Orion, 432pp, $35