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Book review: 'The Operators' goes inside war in Afghanistan

Michael Hastings' 'The Operators' provides a troubling, first-person narrative of the U.S. military's fight in Afghanistan.

January 10, 2012|By Bob Drogin, Los Angeles Times
(Peguin Group )

Author Janet Malcolm once acidly wrote that any reporter who didn't agree that journalism was a "morally indefensible" act of betrayal was "too stupid or too full of himself" to notice what was going on.

Michael Hastings doesn't agree. He sees journalism, particularly when writing about media-greedy public figures, as being "like the seduction of a prostitute." In other words, publicity hounds who try to co-opt honest reporters get what they deserve.

That helps explain the mystery of why U.S. ArmyGen. Stanley A. McChrystal, then the much-lauded commander of America's war in Afghanistan, gave Hastings nearly unfettered access for several weeks in early 2010. From the first night, McChrystal and his senior aides, the self-described "Team America," apparently were too arrogant or too reckless to care that Hastings had his tape recorder out as they trash-talked President Obama, Vice President Biden and others in the chain of command.

After Hastings' behind-the-façade account of drunken sprees and locker-room jibes appeared in Rolling Stone magazine that June, McChrystal was summoned to the White House and fired. Now Hastings has written "The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan," a troubling first-person narrative about that bizarre episode inU.S. military history, as well as a trenchant analysis of the disaster in Afghanistan.

A generation of war reporters made their names in Vietnam by challenging inane Pentagon policies and propaganda. Hastings is no David Halberstam or Michael Herr, but he brings a fresh eye and a brutally authentic voice to America's decade-old misadventure in Afghanistan. In his view, Americans have squandered treasure and blood in what he calls the "Bermuda Triangle of geopolitics," a place where outsiders disappear. A decade after9/11, the U.S. has embraced a venal regime, the presence of U.S. troops is fueling the insurgency, and the war "has very little to do with protecting the United States from terrorists," he argues.

In the weird logic of the war, "we're there because we're there. And because we're there, we're there some more," he writes. Even worse, "The simple and terrifying reality, forbidden from discussion in America… [U.S. troops] were getting their asses kicked by illiterate peasants who made bombs out of manure and wood," presumably improvised roadside bombs made from chemical fertilizer.

Hastings' prose tends to hyperbole and profanity. He mocks or derides top diplomats, members of Congress, military commanders, White House officials and others with a biting mix of gossip, blind quotes and snarky asides. He aims some of his sharpest barbs at well-known journalists who, in his view, flatter and protect high-level sources to maintain access. (Some of this seems payback for media attacks on Hastings' credibility after his Rolling Stone story appeared.)

But he has a point: McChrystal was lionized in the media as a warrior poet, a snake-eating rebel, a super Special Ops mix of saint and ninja. Glossed over was his role in some of the worst military scandals of the George W. Bushera: detainee abuse and torture at prisons in Iraq, and the coverup of Army Ranger Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire.

For all that, McChrystal comes off as a sympathetic if flawed figure. The Afghan war is like "raising a child," he tells Hastings. It's messy and you can't control the outcome. "You might want them to be a rock star, or a heavyweight wrestler or whatever, but at the end of the day, you have to provide the environment, and they have to be what's best for them."

Hastings has spent enough time covering combat to know he sees only a tiny fraction of the war. And he mostly stays in the protective bubble around McChrystal, not with the soldiers and Marines doing the fighting and dying. When he goes to a combat outpost, he gets an angry earful. The troops he meets are frustrated by the rules of engagement. They hate the Afghans. And they think they're losing.

Hastings certainly thinks so. Even the killing of Osama bin Laden last May leaves him cold. The raid "revealed the biggest lie of the war, the 'safe haven' myth, Afghanistan's version of WMDs," he writes. Terrorist attacks or plots since 2001 have emerged not from Afghanistan, but from Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, Pakistan, not to mention Connecticut and Texas. "The concept of waging an extremely expensive and bloody counterinsurgency campaign to prevent safe havens never truly made sense."

Hastings shares so much extraneous detail that we learn he smokes Marlboro Reds and wears a Breitling Super Ocean watch. Breitling, by the way, calls it a Superocean. It's a minor error, but there are many more. Thailand and the Philippines are not "in Central Asia." Famed WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed in 1945, not 1944. The 1991 Gulf War involved a massive invasion force, not "as few American troops on the ground as possible." The Pentagon budget is about $700 billion this year, not $600 billion. And drone missile strikes shot up under Obama, but they didn't double in his first year.

Part memoir, part polemic, "The Operators" is far from perfect. Those readers who believe the Afghan war is misguided and futile will enjoy it. Those who don't may find food for thought.

Drogin is Washington deputy bureau chief at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of "Curveball: Spies, Lies and the Con Man Who Caused a War."

bob.drogin@latimes.com

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