You Don't Know Michael Hastings

Michael Hastings

You probably think you know who Michael Hastings is by now.  Maybe you saw him on Bill Maher, CNN or any of the other news outlets over the past two years.  And then there’s that little article he wrote for Rolling Stone – the article that led to the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal.  That article, which was hailed by some, reviled by others, has been recently amplified into Hasting’s second book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War In Afghanstan.

But you don’t know Michael Hastings. I wanted to know Michael Hastings, so we sat down on a beautiful afternoon in Vermont to discuss the genesis of the article, the resultant book, and his life.

KC: How did the original article come to be?

MH: I started covering war in 2005 in Baghdad, and what I realized was that there’s this whole embed culture among the troops, but that there also existed one among the generals; the ones who are actually running the war. So I put in an embed request to run with General Casey and they were like, what are you talking about?

KC: It’s never going to happen.

MH: Exactly. Then I pitched a story on General Petraeus and no one would sign off on it.  Finally I went into the offices of Rolling Stone and pitched a profile on General McChrystal. They said yes.  I knew I was going to write the book after two days with these guys.  So I really started taking serious notes and records.

KC: You knew by day two?

MH: These guys were too compelling, too interesting. I’d write it out and see how the story goes… Look, part of it is that the magazine is very focused, but in a book – even talking about this book as a book on Afghanistan misses the point – it’s a book about America. We’ve been at war ten years, then here are these guys – these special forces operators/killers running the thing – and we’ve never seen that before.  We may see it again, I don’t know.  Afghanistan is more of the backdrop to this sort of American drama…

KC: I was thinking, this was more about the mindset of the nation, the whole approach, you know? Tell yourself what the reasons are and then absolve/placate yourself with the outcome.  So you put an embed request for McChrystal?

MH: Yeah, I contacted Duncan and Admiral Smith and said hey, I write for Rolling Stone, any access would be great, we’re coming up on one year, would love to look at what’s going on, the progress, etc… and they responded, immediately, because they were interested.  Then I got a phone call saying come to Paris with us.

KC: So you had no lead time?

MH: No, well…

KC: Because usually these things take a while to set up don’t they?

MH: It took a few weeks, but from when I got the go-ahead to being in Paris, was within the week.  I said yes, RS said yes, and then there was this volcano that went off.

KC: Perfectly timed.

MH: Well, at the time it was a pain; I had to go back to Washington and it messed up my schedule. But then I was like, okay, this is a really unique experience/opportunity to ride with these guys, to spend more time with them.

KC: The downtime aspect…

MH:  The downtime and, these are guys who-- let me explain the mindset of these guys: General McChrystal and his staff would rather be in Kabul or Kandahar than Paris.

KC: They live for it.

MH: They live for it.  Even just saying that is difficult, like saying 'they live for it,' it’s like we aren’t supposed to talk about it.

KC: It implies so much, but it is what they were trained for. I mean, they were practically bred for this.  Which I thought was interesting in the book, this dichotomy of mindsets, because the Pentagon needs to have a war, to justify the payroll, but the people need to say, there is no war. 

MH: Exactly, and we’re ten years into this, and we’re ten years into talking about this with guys who want to do it for ten MORE years.

KC: Guys who want to increase troops by a factor of ten.

MH: Exactly, and so again, it’s not bloodlust per se, there is an element of “man we’re really good at killing people.”

KC: A thrill-seeker aspect

MH: But that’s exactly it: they're warriors. This is their life, this is what they do, this is what they love.  I even said this to the navy seal, I said “I hate war,” and he said “oh, we all hate war.” [grins]

KC: And you were like, “No, I really hate war.”

MH: [smiling] Exactly.  And despite that difference, that and the fact that he could out-jog me any day, we both shared the experience of how war impacted our life in a negative way. These wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dominated my life for the last six years.  So there is this instant sort of connection, a shared obsession.

KC: So what stories got you thinking about this embed?

MH: There were two Rolling Stone articles. One was on John McCain, which was sort of this counter-narrative to McCain, and the other was “The Killer Elite” by Evan Wright which spawned GENERATION KILL. Evan got the embed, the experience of being on the ground with the guys in a way that nobody else had done since Sebastian Junger.  In fact Junger’s WAR and GENERATION KILL sort of bookended that time span on the great embed combat kind of books.  So I was like, what if you treated the people who were running this stuff the same way we treated the solider, i.e. pull no punches and really give the reader a view of this really great stuff - how they run a war - they don’t talk in sound bites like we hear when they’re in Washington

KC: Of course not, they are the same guys we see on the embed reporting, just a few more levels up the food chain.

MH: Yup.  So say the Washington Post runs a story that says “US Official Says There are Tensions Between Embassy in Kabul and the General Staff (according to sources)” well yeah, there’s tension, but what does that tension look like?  It looks like General McChrystal looking at his Blackberry and saying “Oh lord, another email from that clown.”

KC: So you’re showing us versus telling us.

MH: Right, and that’s what came as a shock.  I got into this thing with Bill Maher the other night and Bill was like, McChrystal does more in one morning than you will ever do in your entire life.  And I was like, yeah, you know, fair enough…

KC: Of course, I’m a writer.

MH: (laughs) Right! But at the same time, I think ultimately what’s interesting there is why the reaction was like it was. To me it’s like, why are we so shocked that people talk this way?

KC: Their mission is to kill people.

MH: Right, and they’re supposed to send kids to their death.

KC: Trained killers don’t talk this way!

MH: Yes. Yes they do. And that’s it.

KC: If it’s a Serbian from the ‘90s, we accept it. But if it’s a Four Star General from the good ol’ US of A, well… no. He’s got a black Lab and eats hot apple pie; he’s a nice guy.

MH: And he runs every day.

KC: He just happens to have this horrible job and he really doesn’t want to have to do it, they make him…

MH: Right, and he’s really reticent, he doesn’t want to do it.

KC: I love the whole demerit system you mentioned, about how every general set records for demerits in military school.

MH: Well there you go, right?

KC: You’re targeting a very specific type of individual for this job, and rightly so if you’re honest, if results are your sole criteria for this position, then yeah, you’re not worried about GPA, you’re worried about what one does in a given situation, good or bad, blah blah blah. Again it seems very hypocritical on the part of America to react in this way.

MH: Yes.

KC: And it was funny, when I was looking at all your YouTube footage, and all the comments…

MH: I don’t even read them.

KC: You shouldn’t. You’d be like “you know, we’re going to Canada.”  But I mean, there’s just so much blind stupidity.  What did they expect?  And the people who get it, they’re in the military.

MH: Yeah.

KC: For people to see how the infantry act, and then to be shocked when they see an officer act that way… It’s learned behavior, where do you think this stuff comes from? They didn’t get this stuff from high school.

MH:  You hear about this stuff in history all the time. Patton smacked people around, he tried to have a political cartoonist thrown in jail for being an anarchist.

KC: But it’s romanticized with Patton, and I’m sure it’ll go the same way with McChrystal

MH: Clearly, in the book, a lot of people were already starting to romanticize this guy.

KC: Do you think he was starting to drink his own kool-aid at this point?

MH: I think his people were, definitely, whether he was… I don’t think so.

KC: So you think that his whole aura in the book, do you think he was doing that for his staff?

MH: McChrystal gets the joke. In a way that’s what’s funny about it.  Someone said the other day “how do you cover Obama ironically” because he’s ironic already, and he gets it.  So McChrystal sort of gets this as well, he doesn’t really believe the hype…

KC: But he still propagates it

MH: Right, he still lets it happen…

KC: It’s seems like a tacit approval then, right? Like he doesn’t confirm or deny, or roll in it. But like the comment about wanting the cover of Rolling Stone: was he cover collecting?

MH: Right. We talk about these guys and their capacity for risk, for pushing the envelope.  Well, Petraeus had been profiled in Vanity Fair, and they, McChrystal’s staff, think “lame” - we’ll go for Rolling Stone.  So yes, I think they wanted the cover. Why? I think that’s very complicated…

KC: You think the reason is complicated?

MH: I think that, the sort of justification of trying to get on the covers of magazines when you are a four star general, if you have enough of a fan base in the media, that protects you in many ways – it’s another way to build up your power base within these bureaucracies. Petraeus did this masterfully, he didn’t need permission from anyone, and I think that was the thinking behind it.  You’re reaching an 18-30 male demographic, you know? Look how cool we are.  And there is a coolness to these guys.

KC: There’s a reason why recruitment still works in this day and age.

MH: It’s funny, I asked myself, is it wrong that I came away liking these guys? I laughed at their jokes, most of them.

KC: Duncan cracked me up.

MH: Exactly.

KC: “We gotta go put out a volcano.”

MH: Right. Writing about them, you know, it’s engaging.

KC: There’s this sociopathic charm to them. On the one hand they have this unsavory element, but then on the other hand, he has this charm about him – and this suits the needs of his job, the ability to exist in this duplicitous state.

MH: I think intoxicating is the word. Literally expressed in the boozing, but a larger force of being intoxicated by the war.

KC: There’s a swagger too. And I imagine there is some sense of intoxication in being the single point of decision for hundreds of thousands of lives; of millions of dollars a minute.

MH: You're flying around the world in your own private jet with a staff of 20 people, heads of state are clamoring for your attention. You have journalists fawning after you. Every place you go, you’re on the cover the next day, around the world. How do you not succumb to that to some degree? It’s heady stuff.

KC: I doubt the military preps you for this kind of thing. There’s the press corps and such, but as far as how to handle the media – well maybe they do now. [laughs]

MH: [laughs] I don’t know… a lot of this can be blamed on General Petraeus – he rewrote the rules on what it means to be a modern general.  The thing is, Petraeus had really smart and savvy people around him, McChrystal did too, but Petraeus had this innate understanding of the media – he knows what to say and how far to take it. He gets it. 

KC: McChrystal didn’t.

MH: Look, the White House warned them about doing all the media stuff they were doing.  And his response was a couple of months later to vie for the cover of RS.  Why is this significant? Well, again, this gets down to the principle of civilian military control.  So when you are told “no” to more troops, and instead of saying, “yes sir, got it,” you go to the Pentagon and get more troops.  You do it because you know these wimpy civilians aren’t going to stand up to the military. “What, they’re going to deny me my troops?”

"As crazy as this sounds, spending time with McChrystal and his staff, I could really see how one could easily go to work for him."

KC: “Why am I here?”

MH: “Stop wasting my time.”  And that’s why when people have said, oh what they said and did wasn’t a big deal…

KC: From an infraction POV? Maybe not, but from a mindset POV?

MH: It is a big deal.  If I went to the local police station and hung out with the police and they stood around all day making jokes about African Americans and I wrote a piece about how there was a culture of racism, and everyone said “oh no, they were just joking…”

KC: But the joking is the evidence…

MH: Right, it’s the same thing, only instead of racism I was writing about this contempt for leadership. Any time you force someone to look at the war in Afghanistan, they all say, this is a war we shouldn’t fight, unless they’re towing the company line.  Since we ran the story in 2010 the war has become 10-15 points more unpopular . I mean no one is running on Afghanistan, Obama is running on pulling out, he ran on killing Bin Laden. None of the guys are going to counter that by saying we need to stay. We knew that.

KC: And the US was still coming off the Iraq high, and Bin Laden hadn’t been found.

MH: So we have to do it. You make a great point: had we got Bin Laden early, would we have stayed in Afghanistan?

KC: Or Pakistan?

MH: [laughs] Right. In terms of Iraq, they made this mistake of saying “what we did in Iraq was a great victory.”

KC: You have to redefine victory…

MH: …and you have what looks like a ten year civil war going on there.

KC: Come back to that in fifteen years and tell us how well that worked.

MH: Right. But the key thing there is that Petraeus and the counterinsurgency guys had sold this victory narrative to everyone in DC because DC had been complicit in waging and perpetuating the Iraq war – so there was zero incentive for anyone, journalist or policymaker to go “oh no, in fact it is still a disaster” the minute they could say, “oh look, it’s not a disaster, it’s a victory!”  So the lessons of Iraq became, well let’s roll the dice in Afghanistan. They should have been like, we barely got out of that Iraq thing, lets wrap this up before anyone notices and let’s call it a day. Instead they pushed their luck.

KC: And didn’t McChrystal want Afghanistan to be his big accomplishment?

MH: Yeah, and it was a lot about the rivalry between he and Petraeus. There’s a new Petraeus biography out, and Petraeus sticks him a couple of times, and Petraeus’ people did their best this past year to make it clear that they did a much better job.

KC: I liked your take on the seduction of the bubble. When did you become aware of that creeping in?

MH: For me?

KC: Yeah.

MH: So, the bubble. Um.  Look, it’s sexy to be on the inside.

KC: To know things no one knows.

MH: And they will only know when you tell them.  It’s also proximity to power.  The whole culture of Washington and Washington Reporting is your proximity to power, your access – and that’s sort of what you are judged by. By a certain class of people at least. So when you get that, you know...  It’s more than just that, you are in awe of these people, they’re intellectual, and they get it. Even after a couple of days I was making jokes like “I’d work for you guys if I could pass the security clearance.” Though probably not now. [laughs]

KC: [laughs] No, Michael, that ship has sailed.

MH: Yeah, my career in military intelligence is not going to happen.  But I was genuine in my emotions; I really could see myself working with these guys.

KC: Did you catch yourself when you said it?

MH: Yeah, but as crazy as this sounds, spending time with McChrystal and his staff, I could really see how one could easily go to work for him.

KC: Everything seemed a lot more think tank than war room. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d had a ping pong table.

MH: Yeah, it was very different, but also very exciting.

KC: Plus the traveling roadshow aspect.

MH: Yes.  A huge plus there.  But they have this issue because Big Army and a ping pong table are not synonymous with each other.  I wrote in the book how their command center was based on Bloomberg’s office in New York.

KC: How did that come about?

MH: Mike Mullen introduced Bloomberg and McChrystal.  The boys with the money like to hang out with the boys with the guns.

All you can do is write what you believe in, be accurate, and let the chips fall where they may – sometimes you can predict outcome, but mostly you can’t.

KC: So his staff made sure you knew that they modeled their operation center after Bloomberg’s.

MH: Yeah, but then they sort of “corrected” it and said, no Bloomberg modeled his office after ours. [laughs]

KC: Because the first iteration wasn’t cocky enough.

MH: Right. They wanted to take credit for it, and I don’t remember the exact specifics of it, but we went back and forth on that one point of fact.

KC: Did you see what was going to come from behind this article, and now the book?

MH: I was in shock. I was in Kandahar when the story broke.  I’ve been covering war for eleven years now? I’ve written a lot, especially about this war, and one article is a drop in the ocean, right?  Plus, who really cares about what you are writing most of the time? So I was thinking maybe someone would care about this for fifteen minutes, and maybe it’ll get mentioned on cable once. Then I’ll go home and write a book about this crazy general who’s running a war, right?  It’s not what happened.  I mean if a journalist comes up to you and says “I’m going to write a profound piece that will affect policy change in the middle east” you’re going to go “uh huh.”

KC: Good luck with that.

MH: Exactly. So I had no idea. All you can do is write what you believe in, be accurate, and let the chips fall where they may – sometimes you can predict outcome, but mostly you can’t.

KC: So with all of that, after the article, that galvanized your decision to write the book.

MH: Yes. I came home immediately, back to New York, and met with publishers. I’d written a proposal a month before the article came out.  So when the story hit, I just had to rewrite the opening of my pitch. July and August of 2010 was a weird time. Then September I wrote the first draft, reported in DC for a couple of months, then Afghanistan, then back here to Vermont to write the second draft in January 2011. Sent it to the publisher who wrote me a sixteen page email telling me what a jerk I was, that I was a disgrace to the profession.  How I was going to ruin my career if I published this book, how they were terrified of the book. Then it was “can you take this and this and this out and rewrite this?”

KC: Was the concern that if they published this, then they were going to get cut off, or anyone who ever wrote for them would be blacklisted?

MH: There was a lot of fear. I don’t know how much of it was the fear of their future as publishers?

KC: Which is pretty top of mind these days.

MH: Right, or how much of it was fear of “oh wait, we bought a book that was sold as provocative and envelope-pushing and controversial - and he actually meant it.”

KC: That wasn’t in the pitch? [laughs]

MH: I honestly don’t think they read my proposal.

KC: They just saw the name attached to the publicity and then calculated the dollars.

MH: Yeah, it’s scary. Their deal was a significant deal, but I don’t think they read it or they didn’t read any of my other writing. They didn’t like my tone and my attitude.

KC: What magazine do you write for again?

MH: Right! [laughs] Rolling Stone. If I have any advice for young writers, it’s that your contract with your publisher means basically nothing. If they decide to bend you over on it, they will, and you can’t fight back.

KC: So you walked away.

MH: Well, they cited “editorial differences”. The deal blew up.

KC: They thought they had a nice little bio on a general.

MH: The typical corporate cowardice sort of thing.

KC: How sad is it that publishing comes to this more and more these days. Publishing/reporting used to be the bastion of this kind of thinking.

MH: Oh man. That’s what was eye-opening for me. These decaying post-empire institutions totally caught off guard by what’s going on. The same publisher put out a memo the other day saying how horrible self-publishing is, and how eBooks are wrong…

KC: Of course they said that, Exxon will tell you electric cars are evil.

MH: Exactly. This is my second book, and both have had very traumatic birth cycles, and maybe every book is like that, but certainly this one was eye-opening to me.  That being said I am very fortunate to have landed at Blue Rider Press with Penguin and David Rosenthal, who’s edited some of the great non-fiction of our time, Krakauer, etc… So he got it and he said, “Okay kid, take this out, you sound like too much of a jerk, pull this back.”

KC: Which sounds like the same thing…

MH: Yeah, but it wasn’t diluting the story, it was cooling my voice down; it gave me hope. As long as there are editors like Rosenthal, publishing has a future.

KC: Otherwise it’s more vampire books.

MH: Exactly. And I’m all for genre fiction – I shouldn’t be bashing publishers should I?

KC: “The views of Michael Hastings do not reflect the views of blah blah blah…”

MH: [Laughs] But I mean if the other [publishers] are following this trend, we’re all going to be self-published.  But like I said, as long as we have a few David Rosenthals out there, we’re going to be okay.

KC: So, you’re still with Rolling Stone?

MH: Yeah. They. Are. Cool. And they are rare, they’ll back you, they go to bat for you every time.  I’ve seen it firsthand and secondhand in other organizations where when they smell fire, they run.  But these guys, they don’t get intimidated.

KC: Nice feeling to have.

MH: And before they paid me to say this, it was my favorite magazine ever published, always was, always will be. Socially relevant for decades. There’s my advertisement for Rolling Stone.

KC: So what are you working on now?

MH: I’ll be talking to my editor this week, and a few stories in the works for Rolling Stone – international intrigue and all. Drones in Pakistan. [laughs]

KC: So tell us about your process.

MH: These are the Paris Review questions?

KC: [Laughs, then stares at shoes] Yeah.

MH: I write best in isolation, so Milton, Vermont is nice. It takes me three days to warm up from a dead stop then I’ll write five or six days straight, always early in the morning, if I miss the morning I miss the day.  Journalism is different of course, but with, for lack of a better word, “writing” I need to start early, and then stop by one or two, lunch, read emails, then I read for myself.  But I won’t read anything too…

KC: Close?

MH: Not close, I don’t mind close, but too stylized. I read something too stylized then I go back and edit my work and I can see what I was reading when I wrote that section. I’ll have pages of my book sounding like James Ellroy. I write fast. My first book I wrote in three weeks, and this book, probably like two months from beginning to end, the first draft.  That’s my process. I throw it out there and see what sticks, then edit from there.

KC: The Spanbauer method.  Then there are the guys who in-line edit sentence by sentence, ala Paul Auster.

MH: I start every day by reading what I wrote the previous day.  I like to write in the attic versus the basement.  I had a dedicated non-internet laptop.

KC: Franzen style.

MH: He did that too?

KC: Yeah, in his big TIME article, he had this ancient eight-pound Dell laptop that had no Wi-Fi, and he clipped the head off of a network cable and super-glued it into the port, so there was no way he could surf or check email while he was writing.

MH: Good advice.  It’s too easy, and once you read an email, it gets in your head… I mean when you’re doing research, that’s one thing, but the real writing part, no.

KC: Yeah, once you hit Google, you’re gone.

MH: Was it Michael Chabon who said that “Google is the new Absinthe?”

KC: [Laughs] Haven’t heard that one. But I like it.  My daughter, at the age of six informed me “Google knows everything.”

MH: Google does know everything. 

KC: Any other advice?

MH: You’ve got to write every day. It’s as simple as that. I have two or three other books that have never seen the light of day, but that’s part of it, you just need to get it out, and then you can move on. One fourteen publishers rejected, the other my agent stopped before that could ever happen.  But I mean, that’s why you write, right?

KC: Keep it up.

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