What would Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the hardened commanders on his staff have to fear from a bearded, pointy-headed reporter from a rock 'n' roll magazine?
The general and his aides had faced down terrorists and the enemies of America. They had welcomed into their midst journalists from top news outlets. The result had been stories that mostly made the men running the war in Afghanistan look like a bunch of can-do warriors.
But Team McChrystal and its leader met their downfall this week because they failed to recognize, as soldiers like to say, that the opponent, and the situation on the ground, had changed.
Since the last time McChrystal and his men popped off to gain political advantage, the president of the United Stated had made it abundantly clear he wanted more team play. Sensitivity about the war had increased, as the U.S. deployment and casualties climbed.
Most important, the Rolling Stone reporter they invited in to write a profile, Michael Hastings, didn't have to tussle with the competing priorities of the mainstream beat reporters who had come before him. If McChrystal and his men had thought it through, they might have realized that Hastings was in for just one hit. Hastings didn't need to play nice in hopes of getting access to McChrystal down the road. The piece, as a result, was no-holds-barred.
Merely by reading his online bio they would have learned that this journalist they invited into their inner sanctum was something more than the "dirty Rolling Stone hippie" who Jon Stewart suggested had such an easy path to outdoing the dunderheaded mainstream media.
Hastings, 30, had already covered America's wars for five years. He had made plain his skepticism about the chances of victory in Afghanistan. He had boldly written about the death of his fiancée in an ambush in Iraq, turning aside critiques from some journalists that he was too ready to dissect a personal tragedy.
In one Web posting, the Vermont native and NYU grad wrote of his admiration for "writers who live their lives with integrity and without compromise." By phone from Kabul Thursday, Hastings said that in some ways he admired the renegade McChrystal. Recalling the darkly evocative fiction that McChrystal wrote as a West Point cadet (including one story in which the protagonist assassinates the president), Hastings commented: "His attitude was, like, [stick it to] 'The Man.' And those sorts of attitudes exist in me, on a certain level."
It appears now that the hardheaded, make-my-own-rules military man didn't recognize that the latest in a series of interlocutors was not like the others. Michael Hastings was the most dangerous kind of adversary — a kindred spirit.
There has been a rush of commentary since President Obama called McChrystal to Washington Wednesday and ousted him from command of America's longest-running war. Much of the speculation has been around how a four-star general could be so careless and a young reporter so adept.
In reality, though, the career military man's case of loose lips was not a brazen departure but a return to form. (I tend not to have much sympathy with McChrystal aides who anonymously claimed to the Washington Post that Hastings violated "off-the-record" ground rules. There will be no way to know what happened now. That claim muddies the waters but does not reverse a main thrust of the piece—that military leaders had a dismissive attitude toward their civilian counterparts.)
As a cadet at the military academy, he gained renown for drunken partying, insubordination and the like. Hastings and other journalists have pointed out that his career path — through Special Forces and the covert operations they oversee — was riskier than the route forged by most general officers.
McChrystal's aggressive, can-do stance made him a favorite in the Bush White House. He maintained the same stance when Barack Obama, for whom he voted, took the White House.
Growing impatient for a commitment from Obama for more troops in Afghanistan, someone on Team McChrystal went to America's prototypical rarefied-access reporter, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. The source gave Woodward a 66-page report that insisted America probably would fail in Afghanistan without more troops.
Obama didn't appreciate being put on the hot seat before he was ready to make a decision. But McChrystal didn't turn down the heat. Last fall, he publicly mocked Vice President Joe Biden's less troop-heavy alternative, telling reporters in London it would lead to a state of "Chaos-istan."
"McChrystal and his team had this history of trying to throw out hand grenades to shift the debate," said Rolling Stone Editor Eric Bates. "Maybe this time they just went too far."
The most direct evidence in the Rolling Stone piece of McChrystal's insubordination is his mocking refusal to open an e-mail from Richard Holbrooke, the U.S.' special representative to Afghanistan. (His harshest direct complaint about the president was only that it was "painful" waiting three months for a decision on the troop increase.)
But the general is facing a possible end to his military career for failing to rein in his staff, which Hastings colorfully described as "a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs." It must have been the, ahem, geniuses who thought it smart to openly mock Biden as "Bite Me," to disdain a meeting with our French allies as "gay," to deride National Security Advisor Jim Jones, a retired four-star general, as a "clown."
Timing and setting helped pave the way for Hastings' bombshell. Many of the aides who spoke out of turn were hardened military men who had spent most of their time since 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan. Poorly attuned to life outside the war zone, they suddenly found themselves stuck for 10 days this spring in Europe because of no-fly restrictions following the Iceland volcano eruption.
Hastings had the good fortune to see his two-day visit prolonged and then continued later in Afghanistan. As much as he liked the men, he told me: "They do better in war zones than they do in real life."
While he trod where other reporters wouldn't or couldn't, Hastings didn't lob his grenades indiscriminately.
He chose not to name the McChrystal aides who ended up burying their boss. It was not that the reporter had made an agreement not to name them. He simply decided the focus should be on the man in charge, not subordinates, whose careers he had no interest in ruining.
"I didn't need to burn them," he said. "That is the main reason I didn't use more names." It was an act of loyalty/camaraderie/brotherhood that even Gen. McChrystal might have appreciated.