Journalist Surprised By Reaction To His Profile Of Gen. Stanley McChrystal
Journalist Michael Hastings told NPR that he is surprised that "The Runaway General," his Rolling Stone profile of the top American commander in Afghanistan, led Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to recall Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
In an interview with NPR's Michele Norris, Hastings said he remembered being shocked by the general's candor and outspokenness during interviews, but he did not anticipate his article would cause the hullabaloo it has.
Hastings said that, while he could only speculate about what motivated McChrystal and his aides to say what they did, he guessed that they might have wanted "to throw a hand grenade into the pond and create some shockwaves," to get more people to pay attention to the war in Afghanistan.
"Perhaps they just created bigger shockwaves than they're accustomed to," Hastings said.
Earlier today, Gates said McChrystal "made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment." He and the president are scheduled to meet with McChrystal at the White House on Wednesday.
Hastings flew to Paris in April, planning to spend two days with the general and his staff. When the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, their plans changed. He traveled with McChrystal to Berlin, Kabul, Kandahar, and Washington, and along the way, Hastings was privy to frank conversations, contemptuous comments, and bawdy jokes.
Before he embarked on the reporting trip, Hastings did not agree on any ground rules, and he claimed he carried a notebook and a tape recorder at all times.
He said that, although some of his subjects -- including McChrystal -- were drinking, or had been drinking, when he spoke with them, the comments that have attracted the most controversy were not made under the influence of alcohol.
Perhaps more than anything else, the profile underscores how ragged the relationship between civilians and the military in Afghanistan has become. According to Hastings, comments by McChrystal and his staff express feelings that, in his estimation, "are very real and very valid."
"I think it's fairly clear Gen. McChrystal, who spent his life in the military, doesn't have a feel for, or understanding of, the use of civilians," he said. "McChrystal puts his life on the line. He is willing to put his life on the line in a way that civilians don't really understand, or can't appreciate."
According to Hastings, McChrystal, a West Point graduate who previously headed the Joint Special Operations Command, has a steely resolve and a ready willingness to shoot from the hip.
"He has a high tolerance for assuming a great amount of risk," Hastings told NPR's Michelle Norris. "That also translates into how you make policy. It translates into your personal life. It translates into how you deal with journalists."
You want guys like McChrystal killing people on your behalf, and fighting your wars. You just don't want them, I think, commanding the policy, which is what they've done.
Essentially, President Obama has lost control of the war in Afghanistan. He lost control of the war early on. And he is just following the lead of Gen. McChrystal, and I don't know if that's the role McChrystal should have.
Hastings said McChrystal was disappointed by his relationship with President Obama, even as he has enjoyed the support of many people in the Pentagon and the Special Forces community.
"I think he wants to have a one-on-one, eye-to-eyeball relationship with the president that he doesn't feel he has," he said, adding that McChrystal seemed envious of how well President Bush and David Petraeus got along with each other.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Michael Hastings is the journalist who wrote the Rolling Stone portrait of General McChrystal. We talked to him earlier today on a pretty rough phone line in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Hastings says he was a little incredulous when he began hearing sharp barbs and criticisms about Obama administration officials from General McChrystal and his staff.
Mr. MICHAEL HASTINGS (Journalist): The nature of the most candid comments I was (unintelligible) surprised as anyone else. What he said then to me when I had a tape recorder, you know, and (unintelligible) a tape recorder running in my hand and a notebook in my other hand.
NORRIS: Initially, Hastings was scheduled to spend about two days with McChrystal and his staff while the general was in Paris to brief NATO officials and then...
Mr. HASTINGS: The volcano in Iceland exploded. I ended up basically stranded with them, and instead of going back to Washington, which was my original plan and then go on to Afghanistan later, I followed them to Berlin and then later to Kabul and then down to Kandahar, then back to Washington, D.C. So a two-day trip turned into this month-long journey.
NORRIS: As Michael Hastings describes him, Stanley McChrystal is a remarkable man and true warrior. He gets by on four hours sleep a night. He eats one meal and runs seven miles a day. He's bold, and he can be ruthless.
Mr. HASTINGS: He has a high tolerance for risk. He's impressive. He's brilliant. He has a good sense of humor. You want guys like McChrystal out there killing people on your behalf and fighting your wars. You just don't want them, I don't think, commanding the policies, which is what they've done.
NORRIS: General McChrystal has been in charge of the NATO forces in Afghanistan for a year now. Even by the military's admission, it's been a challenging year. U.S. casualties and Afghan civilian deaths are mounting. An influx of new troops has so far failed to blunt the power of the Taliban.
And McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy, which focuses more on winning hearts and minds than on military might, is not always popular with the troops on the ground. There's a lot of tension that's inherent in war. And then Michael Hastings says there's the tension between the commander in chief and his general.
Mr. HASTINGS: I think he was hoping to have a relationship like General Petraeus had with President Bush. I think he wants to have a one-on-one, eye-to-eyeball relationship with the president that he doesn't feel he has.
NORRIS: What happened in their first meeting?
Mr. HASTINGS: General McChrystal came to the White House with high hopes of meeting the commander in chief, and it turned into a 10-minute photo-op, which was disappointing to him.
NORRIS: This article that you've written is getting a lot of - quite a bit of attention because it paints a picture of, basically, two structures that are often at odds: the military structure and the civilian structure or the White House. And McChrystal does not mince words when talking about the national security team at the White House -Richard Holbrooke, the vice president, Joe Biden. Please, describe for us how he describes the civilian members of the security team.
Mr. HASTINGS: I was in the room while General McChrystal prepared a speech to give - that he was going to give in Paris. While they started to role play the question-and-answer session, General McChrystal said, oh, what if I get a question about Vice President Biden, how should I respond? At that moment, they started making jokes about Vice President Biden. And the exact joke was, Biden? Who's that? And then, one of his top advisers said, Biden, did you say bite me? And that was on the record.
NORRIS: When that joke was made, did McChrystal admonish that aide in any way? Or did he go with the flow?
Mr. HASTINGS: No, they were laughing. Have you hung out with the military much?
NORRIS: I certainly haven't spent the kind of time that you have spent with the military. In that statement, I guess...
Mr. HASTINGS: I know. I mean, these guys - that's who these guys are. That's why I'm so shocked. These guys have been living these wars for the last nine years, you know? They don't see their families. They hang out with a bunch of other guys and then, you know? You know, they're in fights. They lose their people they love. I mean, they (unintelligible) some of this humor.
NORRIS: As you well know, he's being called back to Washington to actually talk face to face with the president. Based on the time that you spent with him and getting to know him and drawing this personality sketch of the man, how do you think he'll handle that?
Mr. HASTINGS: Well, I don't think I'm going to get access to that meeting, unfortunately. My guess is he's going to say, you know, that I'm not going to do it again and send me back over there to win the war for you, sir. (Unintelligible) I would - I would guess it is.
NORRIS: Michael Hastings, thank you very much for speaking with us.
Mr. HASTINGS: Thanks, I really appreciate it.
NORRIS: Michael Hastings speaking to us on the phone from Kandahar, Afghanistan. Hastings is the author of a Rolling Stone profile of General Stanley McChrystal called "The Runaway General." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.