Monday, June 28, 2010

Reporting For Battle: A Rolling Stone Coup

As a child, Michael Hastings dreamed of becoming a war correspondent.  “I remember drawing a map of the Middle East and watching CNN nightly with my dad,” he recalls, referring to his fifth-grade interest in the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict. “One day, I even asked my teacher if I could skip gym class to hear a speech by General Norman Schwarzkopf.“

But it’s his Rolling Stone profile of another general in another war -- Stanley McChrystal, until last week the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan -- that has provided Hastings with the scoop of a lifetime. Even before the magazine hit newsstands Friday, the online version had pundits across America correctly predicting that the military leader was toast. The story quoted him and his staff dissing President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden and several other members of the administration. For Hastings, only 30, this All the President’s Generals moment came while he was back in Afghanistan. I’ll call him Michael, since we’ve known each other for many years and he hails from my town (Burlington, Vermont). That’s why I’ve done several interviews with him, including one last Tuesday when his name suddenly became a household word.

In 2005, Michael was a Newsweek stringer based at the Bagdad bureau. Marcus Mabry, his boss at the magazine's New York headquarters, said the young man had paid for the requisite private security training that would qualify him for such a dangerous overseas assignment -- something other journalist wannabes were rarely willing to tackle. “That's what a real reporter who's dedicated to seizing opportunities does,” Mabry later suggested. Michael’s girlfriend, Andrea Parhamovich, went to Iraq in late 2006 to work for an American non-profit. She was killed a few months later by insurgents that ambushed her convoy. He wrote a 2008 memoir, I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story, published by Scribner. Yet, the tragedy could not deter the guy from a career that continues to bring him to perilous places.

While covering Afghanistan for the last two years, his latest Rolling Stone assignment meant getting access to McChrystal, a man he described as having slate-blue eyes able to “destroy your soul...without the need for him to raise his voice.” The general, an ascetic requiring only four hours of sleep each night, eating just one meal a day and running seven miles every morning, may have agreed to talk with Michael in the hope that Rolling Stone’s youthful readership could help military recruitment efforts.

Michael interviewed McChrystal and his staff over a monthlong period, mid-April to mid-May, primarily in Kabul and Paris. Thanks to travel problems caused by ash clouds from the Icelandic volcano, they were all stuck in the City of Light for an extended time. That appears to have been when loose lips started to sink ships over beers at a pub. Some of the nasty jibes: National Security Advisor Jim Jones, a retired four-star general, was deemed “a clown.” Biden was derided as “Bite Me.” Once the story hit, Republicans joined in denouncing McChrystal’s insubordinate behavior and Wednesday, with the media on stakeout at the White House, Obama accepted his resignation. But Michael also came under fire. TV commentators, even Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, have ridiculed Rolling Stone and, by extension, its newest star reporter for being hippie-dippie. OK, OK, so the cover features an almost naked Lady Gaga toting Kalashnikov assault rifles, but that merely reflects the absurd zeitgeist of the music industry. And, yes, Michael grew up admiring Hunter Thompson -- once a writer for the magazine -- and tossed in some of his own gonzo verbiage to describe McChrystal’s staff as “a hand-picked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operatives and outright maniacs.”

When I reached Michael by phone in Afghanistan, he suggested: “They’re all crazy; you’ve got to be over here.”

But this hard-working, ambitious kid is hardly a counterculture dropout, even though as an adolescent the column he wrote for his student newspaper at Lower Canada College in Quebec was called “Fear and Loathing at L.C.C.” Michael’s family -- which includes two brothers and their parents, both doctors -- lived in Montreal for five years before relocating to Vermont in 1996. At a Catholic high school here, he got in trouble for a controversial editorial about permission to chew gum. “I described the principal in unflattering terms,” Michael acknowledges. “Typical teen rebellion.” As senior-class president, he used the term “shagadelic” (from the Austin Powers movies) over the public address system. “They thought it was a subversive word. I was impeached after only six months in office.”

His subsequent, less shagadelic studies at New York University led to the Newsweek job. He’s a knowledgeable film buff whose Rolling Stone article managed to give a shout-out to Jean-Luc Godard, in contrast with McChrystal’s preference for fare such as Talladega Nights. And the general’s gaunt looks are compared with those of Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn. The whole shebang is somewhat Apocalypse Now, however, as Michael presents a thought-provoking analysis in print of what many see as this war’s chaos and futility.

He has now figured in a stunning shakeup of the U.S. military establishment and yet another pivotal moment for the beleaguered White House. Three days before the piece grabbed headlines, Michael was back at his family's spacious Victorian home on a leafy street in Burlington. On the morning after a barrage of long-distance media interviews with the likes of ABC’s Diane Sawyer and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow from Afghanistan, he was out on patrol with a unit of soldiers in the 110-degree heat of Kandahar.

--Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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