Murray Polner: Review of Michael Hastings’s "The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan" (Blue Rider Press/ Penguin, 2012)


Murray Polner, a book reviewer for the History News Network, wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran and co-authored Disarmed and Dangerous: The Lives and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan and We Who Dared To Say No To War.

Michael Hastings is a young journalist who was assigned by Rolling Stone to do a profile of General Stanley McChrystal, who willingly agreed to be interviewed. For one month in Europe and Afghanistan he hung around the general and his devoted hand-picked team while they partied and drank before departing for the war zone. They must have been aware that, as they spoke freely and critically about their political and civilian bosses back home, Hastings’s tape recorder was running.

When the Rolling Stone profile was published McChrystal was fired and replaced by General David Petraeus, now head of the CIA. It reminded many, including President Obama, of President Harry Truman’s dismissal of General Douglas McArthur for insubordination during the Korean War. NBC News quoted Obama saying that Chrystal’s comments “undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.” 

But had the general really gone too far in overstepping the line between civilian and military control? Whatever the truth, in Hastings’ eyes McChrystal was an admirable if complex personality, a scholarly military man someone once dubbed a Warrior Poet, and intensely loyal to his personal staff and troops under his command. Hastings confessed, “I’d liked hanging out with McChrystal and his team, yet I hated the war.”

McChrystal arrived after the intense controversy concerning the death of Pat Tillman, former Arizona Cardinal football player turned army volunteer who died of friendly fire and whose death the Tillman family rightly charged was initially fabricated by the Pentagon eager for some good publicity. Tillman’s father alleged  the general was involved in a “falsified homicide investigation” and his mother complained to Obama, who—here I speculate—may not have wanted to confront the Pentagon, hoping that Robert Gates, his secretary pf defense and Republican holdover from George W. Bush’s cabinet, would protect him from Republican attacks that he was weak on “national security.”  Still, the truth is that many inside Washington hardly cared very much and the Senate confirmed his appointment without a nay vote. On June 9, 2009 McChrystal was greeted by the mass media as our latest savior in Afghanistan.

Both media pundits and politicians, who both barely knew him, hailed his promotion as head of all forces in Afghanistan (while ignoring the long and honorable service of his predecessor, General David McKiernan, who was unceremoniously dumped by the Pentagon), much as they would the appointment of his successor Petraeus. In their minds, it seemed that McChrystal was the kind of tough guy who was the right man for the toughest and most difficult of assignments.

The war was not going well when Hastings was in Afghanistan, nor does it limp on with much success today. A big part of the problem is that both the Taliban and the Karzai government see themselves as proud Afghans, a people notoriously unwilling to bow to foreign powers. Hastings’s chapter on the complicated Karzai is a gem: McChrystal tries to give him a proper briefing on a planned assault on the town of Marja, but the president repeatedly ignores him because he supposedly has a cold. They finally meet, but in the end the Marja campaign leads to twenty-five American deaths; and apparently the battle didn’t do much to change the overall situation.

Hastings duly notes what is well-known about the Afghan people we are supposedly fighting to defend: corruption, especially among the Kabul elite, the army, and the police; the prevalence of warlord-controlled drug traffic, massive illiteracy, extensive poverty, unrelenting Taliban opposition and the many billions wasted on the entire misadventure. The Operators also touches on bitter bureaucratic fights involving the Afghans, the U.S. Embassy and the military. He has a particularly poignant section on the death of an army corporal.

Obviously, Hastings admires the “skeptical coverage” by journalists in a Vietnam War he was too young to know. Citing David Halberstam, he says “the war had been exposed as the Giant Lying Machine. It was all, it seemed, a scam.” He adds that in spite of the best efforts of today’s military, “the simple and terrifying reality, forbidden from discussion in America, was that despite spending $600 billion a year on the military, despite having the best fighting force the world had ever known, they [our military] were getting their asses kicked by illiterate peasants who made bombs out of manure and wood.”

The second half of the book is where Hastings strikes back at journalists who accused him of reporting talk by McChrystal and his staff that should have never been publicly aired. He clearly resents being singled out by reporters angry that he dared to write what he saw and heard rather than remaining silent.  Still, among his allegations that should not have been made is that some reporters (if true, they are unnamed) received payments from war industries and think tanks about whom they are supposed to write, claiming the story was told him by an unidentified Newsweek correspondent. That’s simply unacceptable. Naming names is crucial; otherwise delete the reference. Yet he’s on target in writing that for some it’s okay to go after someone like Sarah Palin but many practice self-censorship covering up serious blunders by their high-level VIP sources to preserve their access. Here, too, I wish he had named names.

The Afghan war continues, with only vague assurances about when and even if it will lead to the withdrawal of all U.S. forces. Like the invasion and occupation of Iraq, what really happened in Afghanistan and why it drags on remains a mystery to most Americans unaware of, or indifferent to, the ideological and political battles that infect Washington’s foreign policy circles.  Historians will doubtless spend years arguing about the two wars and the personalities involved, but beyond a few memorials and parades most will forget the dead and grievously wounded. For this reason alone Hastings’ fascinating version is very worthwhile. While it may someday be challenged and revised he is unquestionably correct that the two wars were pointless and unnecessary.

One of the books McChrystal read after arriving in Afghanistan to take command was Stanley Karnow’s classic Vietnam: A History. Quoting Newsweek, Hastings writes that the general asked the author if there were any lessons that might apply to Afghanistan and Karnow was said to have answered, “The main thing I learned is that we never should have been there in the first place,” a lesson this country, historically addicted to war, has never learned.

One has to wonder where we will intervene next. Iran? If so, we need to keep in mind a chilling comment once attributed to Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni: "If you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you’re going to love Iran.” Lessons unlearned is the lesson to be learned.

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