‘The Operators,’ by Michael Hastings (Book Review by Matt Gallagher)

Updated: February 5, 2012

Matt Gallagher doesn’t so much contribute to The Rhino Den in the traditional sense of the word. It’s more like we rip off his stuff because he’s a damn good writer and a combat vet. Here’s his latest – a review of the controversial book ‘The Operators.’

It’s impossible to read The Operators, Michael Hastings’s new book about the Afghanistan War, without contemplating the amount of adoration and contempt it is going to generate in the coming weeks. It’s a polarizing book about a polarizing war for a polarized nation. Despite that, it demands to be read by both audiences and everyone in between. Its origins reside in “The Runaway General,” Hastings’s 2010 Rolling Stone article about Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his inner circle, which led to the general’s very public resignation from the top position in Afghanistan. Like it or not, this is a book of great consequence, not a pop-culture puff piece, which some of its deriders claim it is. The Operators seems destined to join the pantheon of the best of GWOT literature, not just for its rock-and-roll details, but for its piercing chronicles of a world gone mad.

Though The Operators covers much more than Hastings’s drunken tour through Europe with “Team America,” that remains the heart of the narrative. Understandably so. Unlike in “The Runaway General,” Hastings identifies the sources of the lightning-rod quotes, from Joe “Bite Me” Biden (Jake McFerren, McChrystal’s longtime friend from West Point and top political adviser) to “We co-opted the media on [Iraq] … You could see it coming. There were a lot of us who didn’t think Iraq was a good idea.” (McChrystal himself.)

One of the overarching themes of The Operators is the growing military-civilian divide in an era of an all-volunteer force. Typically, writers and journalists explore this divide at the ground level, where returning veterans and the society that produced them struggle to reconcile. As wrenching as those stories may be, Hastings has higher aspirations—right at the top, where a new general’s team and a new president’s team vie for influence and only seem to find misunderstanding and distrust.

“The guilt that many felt for not serving was covered up by an uncritical attitude toward those who did,” writes Hastings, both about the disconnect at the highest levels of power and what he coins the media-military industrial complex. As embarrassing as some scenes are for McChrystal and his subordinates, it’s really some of Hastings’s comrades in journalism (I couldn’t help but think of Thomas Friedman’s infamous “Suck on this” clip) whom he most takes to task, lambasting their lack of critical thinking and hard questions in exchange for continued access to the movers and shakers of the war effort.




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