Why McChrystal Sang Like A Bird To 'Rolling Stone'

President Barack Obama meets with Army Lt. Gen...
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Right now, there is much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth over Gen. McChrystal’s overshare with Rolling Stone — written by (yay!) fellow True/Slant writer Michael Hastings. Among fellow journalists…

How on earth, did he — of all the journalists in the world — manage to get this extraordinary career-making (his), possibly career-ending (McChrystal’s) scoop?

A few reasons, all of them classics of the genre:

1) Frustration By all accounts, Gen. McChrystal was totally fed up of being ignored and over-ruled by politicians and policymakers who he felt barely knew who he was and whose reputations were riding on the backs of his men.

2) Use the media It’s a time-honored way to speak truth to power — using the conduit of a popular publication as your loudspeaker and a willing journalist, editor and publisher as your microphones. If the people in charge aren’t listening to you, take them out of the loop.

2) Access Michael Hastings has been reporting on war, on the ground, for years. As a result of that commitment and the widsom it helped him accumulate, he knew the right people and they allowed him into their circle. From today’s New York Times:

As a result, Mr. Hastings waited in Paris with the general and his staff as they tried to get to Berlin by bus. Mr. Hastings traveled to Berlin separately. He later rejoined the general’s inner circle at the Ritz-Carlton hotel there, where they all spent the week waiting for the ash cloud to clear so they could fly to Afghanistan.

“I was so amazed by it myself,” Mr. Hastings said in a telephone interview from Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he is now reporting on another story for Men’s Journal. “At times I asked myself that question: Why are they giving me all this access?”

Though Mr. Hastings said that most of the eyebrow-raising comments in the article came from the general during the first two days in Paris, he found him and his staff to be more welcoming as time went by.

Initially, Mr. Hastings was not scheduled to travel with General McChrystal to Afghanistan. Only after he arrived in Europe did Mr. Hastings learn that the general’s staff was eager to take him with them. “They suggested the idea,” Mr. Hastings said.

Mr. Hastings ended up spending about a month on and off with the general and his staff while they were in Afghanistan — most of the time in settings and interviews that the general allowed to be on the record. “The amazing thing to me was that no ground rules were set,” Mr. Hastings said.

3) Time One of the most crucial elements of getting a story of this magnitude, in its full-on candor, is having a lot of time to spend with your subject(s.) For once, being a freelancer — with no editor demanding he shift his attention to a blog or TV report or the next story in order to look productive or beat the competition – paid off.  Michael was able to spend a month with his subjects., almost unheard-of for anyone with a staff job.

No subject, even the most private and protective, can spend a month around a journalist and not, eventually, let their hair down — even a high and tight. You get tired, you (as his subjects did) get drunk, your tongue loosens, you repeat the same ideas in a dozen ways. Whatever’s really bugging you will show up on  regular basis and all a reporter has to do is have the time, energy and attention to get every scrap of it down. Thanks to the volcano eruption in Iceland, McChrystal had a lot more time to spend with Michael than is typical for either of them. Both men, in the normal course of events, would have been on tighter leashes with much more constrained schedules. No one can report a story like this after one 20-minute interview.

4) Trust Closely linked to time. It takes a lot of time, certainly between military or police and journalists, to build any sort of trust. I recently heard journalist Sebastian Junger, who has just made a war documentary, Restrepo, describe the months he spent in-country, including sustaining several severe injuries, over which the soldiers of the platoon in Afghanistan that was his focus began to include him in their circle.

5) Street cred Michael is young, but he’s written a well-reviewed book about the Iraq war and losing his fiance there. He’s smart, well-published, knows the players and the issues.

6) Luck. A volcano eruption? No J-school diploma can get you that lucky…

This is a story many talented and ambitious journos would have killed for.

Few had the magic combination.

18 thoughts on “Why McChrystal Sang Like A Bird To 'Rolling Stone'

  1. leonkelly

    General McChrystal is not the first (and won’t be the last) high-ranking general to grind the enamel off his teeth for having to tolerate civilian ineptitude and watch his soldiers die because of it. Our government is constructed to have the president be commander-in-chief for good reasons we were all taught in high school. McChrystal is entitled to his opinion and to voice it. He should also have to pay with his job for exercising that right (a calculated decision he may have made). He may be on the job market in short order, but he also won’t have to be in charge of military operations where some of America’s finest young people get killed in ways that he may feel could be prevented.
    For Michael Hastings: Good luck is what happens to people who are well prepared when opportunity presents itself. Mega-kudos to lucky Michael.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    leon, thanks. I have little doubt that the general knew what he was doing and why — whether or not he loses his job. I have no problem with his comments because so many of them sound like pretty legitimate complaints. Not having served in the military, I can only imagine the frustration of carrying out orders that you find, ultimately, foolish and misguided. I listen to BBC every day. and the consensus on his skills and respect in the field is that he’s well-regarded there — whatever his embarrassed and angry bosses now think.

    I was delighted to hear that this was Michael’s story. I’d be envious but mostly just impressed. It’s exciting and a little terrifying (at so young an age) to be in the center of an international story like this – and (virtually impossible now) to have had it first and exclusively.

  3. brianwood

    Iraq AND Afghanistan are based on Bush’s and now Obama’s lies. What IS the mission? McChrystal didn’t want to be in place when the Kandahar offensive blew up in our faces, and he doesn’t want to be in place when we are forced to admit we’re whipped. It’s the penalty for not learning from ‘Nam.

    Condign punishment for Obama. You listen to the military, you’re gonna get scrod. They can ALWAYS win; they can ALWAYS win easy; and you hold the bag.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Given the parlous condition of the Afghan government and economy, what exactly is it the war is about? Their economy is based almost exclusively on the production of opium for heroin. Great thing to be blowing billions of American taxpayers’ money on.

    I can’t picture the day the country is going to even vaguely resemble what some people stateside dream is possible.

  5. libtree09


    “General McChrystal is not the first (and won’t be the last) high-ranking general to grind the enamel off his teeth for having to tolerate civilian ineptitude and watch his soldiers die because of it.”

    Maybe, maybe not. However civilian control of the military is essential because without it we create a de facto fourth branch of government. Something that we came quite close to seeing during Cheney’s rein and something that many in the Pentagon believe exists.

    Simply put the military is a weapon for the people to used by the people’s representatives as they see fit. They are not charged with foreign policy. The institution is designed to win wars by overwhelming force and destroying a state’s means of sustaining itself. In modern warfare this means killing lots of civilians and destroying the economic base as in destroying cities. The last war fought with this method was North Korea where we drove the enemy to the Chinese border where we met the Chinese, once that happened the only way to fully succeed the general in charge said we needed to nuke the China/Korean border. Maybe he thought the President who ordered it once would do it again.

    Civilian authority prevented this by removing the general, pulling the troop from North Korea and creating a stalemate. Civilian ineptitude? Nukes would have certainly won the war.

    In Vietnam we avoided provoking China by staying clear of North Vietnam and fighting a counter insurgency. Sort of a revised Korean plan. Our commander in chief listened to his generals who needed half a million troops to get it done. Goldwater wanted to nuke the north. However expect for that military planning failed even with the proper number of troops. Can we say military ineptitude or civilian distaste for doing what it really takes to win a war.

    In the first Gulf war the commander in Chief listened to a general, gave him what he needed and he destroyed the enemy troops efficiently and completely. He could have gone on and taken Baghdad, had enough troops to occupy the city but the orders were to come home. Toss up maybe?

    In Iraq the commander in chief listened to his generals and then fired them until he found a general who would go along with their civilian plan of invasion. It was a success until they won because unlike France or Germany or Great Briton we as a nation never trained our military to be occupiers. We had no history of talent in the bureaucratic machinations of running a foreign culture and nation. Result was a cluster fuck of bad civilian and military decisions.

    In Afghanistan we seemed to start off on the right foot, using the tribes to defeat the Taliban and then we lost the opportunity for the big prize and bogged down by trying to democratize the nation creating a vacuum in the country side. Civilian ineptitude from both domestic and foreign arenas.

    As for McChrystal, he is a product of an arrogant pentagon run a muck under Bush and Cheney. A place that purged itself of those not quite on board the neo-con militarism and left only generals who feel that they still shape foreign policy. His remarks over troop levels in London was a disgraceful act of pentagon bullying. His handling of the Tillman shooting was criminal and his dismissal of everything not military is counter productive. He is narrowly focused on his mission without understanding that his endeavors are but a piece of the puzzle that includes domestic and diplomatic strategies that must work in harmony.

    The horrible truth is this: A strategy of counter insurgency is futile and only in place because no one has a better way militarily without carpet bombings and a million troops. Experts feel that we need six hundred thousand troops for a real counter insurgency and we need them there for a generation. We are merely treading water there. Worse success is ill defined even when achieved.

    This is from Steven Metz writing in Small Wars Journal: “When I was a young professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College I joined a small committee responsible for strategy instruction. “This was all new to me: I had to learn before I could teach. One of the ideas that most impressed me then—and continues to today—is a simple, elegant, yet powerful way of thinking about strategy: it must be feasible, acceptable, and suitable. Feasibility means that there must be adequate resources to implement the strategy. Acceptability means that the “stakeholders” of the strategy have to buy in. Suitability means that the strategy had to have a reasonable chance of attaining the desired political objectives. This was the most important of all. A feasible and acceptable strategy was worthless if it did not offer a reasonable chance of attaining the desired political objectives.”

    We all know that one stakeholder Karzai is not all in and McCrystal was not on board supporting our political operatives nor do we have adequate resources to support the strategy.

    Further from Metz: In insurgency the military battlespace is not decisive; the psychological and political ones are (at least so long as the insurgents are not stupid). Insurgents recognize that they are militarily weaker than the state and deliberately shape their movement so that the military battlespace is not decisive. While the state would prefer that the military battlespace be decisive, it cannot make it so. The state can (and often does) dominate the military battlespace but if this does not directly translate into dominance of the political and psychological battlespaces, the state cannot attain strategic success. Hence operational effectiveness is no guarantee of strategic success.

    Solutions always come down to politics and the military can help by inflicting enough pain to get everyone to a table but little more in these situations.

    We do not need a general who thinks only of one solution. There was a reason Eisenhower was picked to destroy Germany and not Patton. One recognized allies and a political future.

    Afghanistan needs someone in charge who is not moaning and groaning over civilian overlords keeping him from crushing the enemy but one who can see the endgame of a political solution and if that cannot be achieved has the sense to get his men out of harms way and back home.

  6. Pingback: Why McChrystal Sang Like A Bird To 'Rolling Stone' – Caitlin Kelly … | www.TheUntoldStories.com

    1. libtree09

      It is a soapbox for some. I will restrict my future comments but sometimes I feel a history lesson is warranted.

  7. craig

    Much Congratulations to Hastings on a great story. However, the incredible attention being given to this story is a little troubling to me. Yes, there are legitimate worries when a military general expresses a disrespect for civilian control of the military, but this story is only getting wings because it is sexy and salacious.

    If reporting on the war is so important that the major media outlets can dedicate entire days of coverage almost exclusively to coverage of Mr. Hastings article, why can they not find time on other days to pay attention to the work of other reporters working hard in Afghanistan. Another TS contributor, PJ Tobia has expressed concern about not getting attention in the media for his stories.

    While Mr. Hasting’s article was a big deal about an important issue to be sure, it seems that there are every day stories that do not only come from 4 star generals that absolutely need attention. Hopefully Mr. Hasting’s article is a catalyst for greater, more in depth coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan, though I am skeptical that this will be the case.

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    craig, fair point. I miss PJ’s reporting. The challenge of reporting from Afghanistan is…what is there new to say? What haven’t we heard before, many times already? I think Michael’s piece got so much play because it was (astonishingly) exclusive, with a general, and yes, salacious.

    Part of the challenge for other reporters by now, I suspect, is editors and producers’ fatigue or boredom with a story that hasn’t changed much or isn’t likely to. I don’t envy reporters there on the ground trying to find or break news.

  9. This whole thing makes me recall something I read in the Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” something about politicians influencing strategy.

    Obama must realize there is nothing winnable on the ground in Afghanistan, unless we’d like to make the place the 51st state. We’ve already spent enough to make it a state, of course. Eight years.

    1. libtree09


      Once the “proposition” that civilians need to listen to the generals on the ground is accepted as gospel our leaders are trapped. No general will accept defeat, admit his mission is futile. Patton wanted to invade Eastern Europe and MacArthur wanted war with China. Now Obama is up against Petraus the savior of Iraq.

  10. Caitlin Kelly

    The only state it might be is one of chaos or confusion. That war seems a waste of lives and precious resources.

  11. Steve Weinberg

    General McChrystal and other decision makers (civilian and military within government plus private-sector corporate) should feel free to speak candidly through the mass media.

    Whatever the policies of such decision makers, whatever their motives, if they convey accurate information in a heartfelt manner, we should applaud their candor. Does President Obama hold the right to scold and censor a general for speaking candidly? Yes? Should Obama have punished McChrystal in such a draconian manner? No.

    Obama is obviously an intelligent human being. He is also obviously a compassionate human being. But when he uses his presidency to stifle dissent that all citizens, all taxpayers ought to hear, Obama is harming the principles and practice of democracy.

  12. yalensis

    My theory is that McChrystal engineered (perhaps subconsciously) his own firing because he didn’t want to go down in history as the general who lost Afghanistan. A couple of months prior to his firing, McChrystal had been ordered to take and secure Kandahar, and he chickened out, rightfully so, because his troops would have taken too many losses. Americans are in denial that they are losing on the battlefield, just like in Vietnam.

  13. Caitlin Kelly

    yalensis, I think so too. He’s hardly stupid, so letting his ya yas out to Rolling Stone (and allowing his aides to do so as well) signals clearly to me a well-planned exit strategy that appeared to many as “bad judgement.” That reaction assumes he knew better — the man plans battles! He probably strategizes in his sleep.

    This gave him several wins: 1) he got out of the mess 2) he got out WITH his opinions of the mess loud and clearly in the minds of voters and his peers 3) the mess now belongs to Obama and Petraeus.

    If he had simply quietly resigned — and soldiers do not give up easily on anything — we would have known nothing of his feelings.

    I’m fine with all of it.

  14. Pingback: Volcanic Eruption Helped Reporter Gain Access to McChrystal – War On Terror News « Ray's Map

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