Tom Baker's Reviews > The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan

The Operators by Michael Hastings
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Jun 14, 2012

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Read from June 11 to 12, 2012

In 2010, Michael Hastings wrote “The Runaway General” for Rolling Stone magazine, an article which directly led to the firing of General Stanley McChrystal as commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – the top US military officer in Afghanistan. Among other things, Hastings’s article portrayed a general and a support staff who were often dismissive—if not outright insubordinate—to their civilian leadership, who clashed with the White House and Pentagon on a routine basis, who mismanaged information, and who faced a disturbing morale problem in an increasingly unpopular war.

The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan is essentially a 400-page extension of that now famous article, beginning well before its publication as Hastings witnesses the behavior that will ultimately condemn McChrystal and his team. It explores the political climate of both the US and Afghanistan between 2008 and 2011, the relationship between the government of new US president Barack Obama and Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and then delivers a lengthy postscript on the aftermath of the Rolling Stone article’s publication, including the impact of the US leadership change from McChrystal to General David Petraeus. It’s not necessary to have read “The Runaway General” prior to opening The Operators, since the book recounts most of the more damaging details printed in the article as they unfold. But if you’re familiar with Hastings’s article, you may also find big sections of The Operators to be repetitive and fairly ho-hum. While a scattered few points in the book made me gasp or go wide-eyed, there aren’t nearly enough revelations in the expanded material to really make The Operators earn its length and be considered a must-read. It’s an interesting book, but only fitfully gripping.

I must confess that as a former US Army captain, I didn’t find “The Runaway General” article to be particularly scandalous anyway; I witnessed similar behavior on many occasions in the five years that I served, and I’ve come to feel it’s more or less routine in the officer ranks and probably amplified by under the conditions of war. I agree that McChrystal should have been fired (essentially, that President Obama had little choice but to do so in the wake of the article’s publication) but that doesn’t mean I found it shocking to read stories of US military officers looking down their noses at politicians and diplomats. Is it proper behavior? No. Should it be tolerated? No. But is it truly shocking? Not really. So as Hastings delivered his most potent material, a great deal of it didn’t move me significantly.

Compounding the problem is that Hastings makes little effort to set a scene in many places – the book pingpongs casually between Berlin, the US, Paris, various indistinguishable points in Afghanistan, and elsewhere in a disorienting way, and much of it becomes a blur. Perhaps that’s an intentional effect, because much of Hastings’s city- and country-hopping must have quickly become disorienting as it happened, but the effect is wearing on a reader. Further, the cast is so large, it’s difficult to keep the roles of many of the supporting players clear; I often had to flip back to recall who someone was.

Hastings shines when he describes the curious mix of luxury and economic depression that reigns in the city of Dubai, but that eye for detail is used too intermittently. Lengthy digressions into political discourse, the history of war correspondence, and a bit of self-aggrandizement by the author don’t help, either. The Operators is just a notch below full-blown gonzo journalism, making its author a character in his own story (he almost seems thrilled to encounter a woman who may be spy); although gonzo has become an accepted journalistic style in the 40-some years since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it isn’t always the best approach. I’m sure Hastings would take issue with my depiction, but I call it like I see it.

The most effective sections of The Operators come when Hastings recounts his visit to a beleaguered and demoralized infantry platoon in the war zone, and when he describes the atmosphere shift when his Rolling Stone article begins to leak. It’s at these points where The Operators really has juice. Maybe it's to the book's detriment that the article became such a phenomenon, excerpted and quoted across the web and discussed through the spectrum of media. Or it’s possible that the original article was the best, most impactful vehicle for the material, and 400 pages dilute the power. It’s possible that more than a decade into the war in Afghanistan, after the now almost universally recognized mistakes in Iraq and, a generation earlier, Vietnam, and in an American culture that has embraced the military as honorable, suspicious, and a target for satire (through media like Catch-22 or M*A*S*H) all at the same time, we’re just a little bit too jaded.

There is interesting material in The Operators, and it’s worthwhile for readers interested in the war in Afghanistan or who enjoy books of this type. But those expecting a truly “wild and terrifying” ride may come away disappointed.

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