Our parents and grandparents had Patton and MacArthur; we got stuck with McChrystal, although, if you believe everything that Rolling Stone writer Michael Hastings says, McChrystal is the real deal—raw, rebellious, macho, blasphemous, and totally out of control. In his splashy article that refocused the national spotlight on the war in Afghanistan and made the special vocabulary of military academics part of coffeehouse parlance, Hastings chronicled nearly a month of up-close-and-personal fly-on-the-wall the journalism with McChrystal and his team. Hastings also precipitated the downfall of the most powerful general in Afghanistan; after the article hit the newsstands it took President Obama 1 day to relieve McChrystal of command in the wake of the firestorm his interview caused.
In an article replete with foul language, crude antics, and unpolished opinions, Hasting’s “Runaway General” begins with the premise that McChrystal and his staffers are a collection of culturally illiterate, arrogant, and low-class soldiers who scorn both the politicians and political processes of the U.S. government and goes on to suggest that Americans are facing something like a mini coup in the wrangling between the President and the Pentagon over the timeline and endgame for Afghanistan. The article’s success depends on Hastings out-of-hand rejection of COIN (counter-insurgency), which he disparages as a “controversial military strategy” and the “new gospel of the Pentagon” that attempts to “rebrand the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare,” suggesting that the only thing more renegade than the talked-up theory is the charismatic general trying to push it through despite the deep reservations of the political establishment. Beginning with the suggestion that COIN is both questionable and irresponsible, it’s nearly child’s play to make a maverick of the man who is its biggest proponent.
The Rolling Stone attempt to match the man to the theory and spew out a renegade and rebellious portrait of the military’s top brass is unsuccessful and disappointing, though it did result in Obama relieving McChrystal of his duties. The weight of the caricature depends on anecdotal evidence (McChrystal as low brow fighting man, drinking Bud Light Lime <gasp!> and dressing in off-the-rack slacks and shirt), a few disparaging but innocuous remarks about the Vice President and top officials (expressing annoyance at another e-mail from Holbrooke, a U.S. diplomat to Afghanistan, “I don’t even want to open it;” remonstrating at his perceived betrayal by U.S. ambassador Eikenberry. a former friend “who covers his flank for the history books;” and, in reference to V.P. Biden quipping, “Biden who?”), and a lot of details filled in by anonymous aides whose commentary on McChrystal’s character and decisions pass as Gospel with Hastings. However, compared with Patton’s speech to the Third Army or MacArthur’s open disobedience to a presidential order and subversive statements to the press, McChrystal looks more like an over-worked soldier with heartfelt opinions than a runaway general and architect of dissent.
The lessons that could be drawn from the Rolling Stone interview and the resignation of McChrysal are numerous: watch what you say in front of the press, the power of insinuation is potent, perceptions can create new realities, words have power. However, I’m more interested in the article as a formidable example of the division plaguing American culture and politics, and wonder whether the opinion-forming pundits are at least partly responsible for the continuance and exacerbation of that tension, if not for its existence in the first place. While unable to speak for the Rolling Stone agenda (and they, no doubt, cherish their role as an unbiased media outlet dedicated to cutting through all the b.s—their word, my abbreviation—and speaking truth to power), they drop more hints at their agenda than there are f-bombs in a P. Diddy’ album. Take this example from the front cover of the 8 July double issue on their oil-spill expose: “we hope [our story] will help persuade the president to take immediate action to protect America’s coastline.” And if it’s political persuasion and efficacy they are looking for, they struck gold with Hastings’ article, which resulted in McChrystal losing his job.
Controversy and suffering are the biggest money-makers in news, as any journalist will grant. Yet it seems that there are greater goods to be had than making money and, given the international troubles facing the U.S. and the cost they exact in gold and blood from the U.S. coffers and people, journalists might exercise a bit more responsibility in their coverage and characterization of major events and personalities. The Rolling Stone interview that cost McChrystal his job, while getting off on a technicality (“hey, I’m just quoting what I heard”), is a prime example of journalism in the service of a cause. The article trades in suggestion, innuendo, and anecdote and, coming from a major media outlet, exerted a great deal of pressure on our mediaphile president to respond in a manner that would exonerate him of the charges Rolling Stone delivered via McChrystal: man-up and show the world who’s boss.
“A house divided cannot stand,” but, unfortunately for the vertical aspirations of the American “house,” division sells. Are the president and the military brass in disagreement over the war in Afghanistan? Yes. Does that division threaten to undermine American victory? Possibly. Does magnifying and exaggerating that division help bring resolution? Obviously not.
Nevertheless, Michael Hastings and the Rolling Stone are entitled to their opinions; however, the unexpected conclusion of the interview ought to serve as a reminder of the deeper divisions running through our nation than those plaguing our civil and military leaders. If peace is to be had, it might come at the cost of promoting it at home, and taking the monetary hit, as much as it will dying in the foothills around Kabul in the cause of freedom.