Like everyone else, I was mesmerized by the mounting furor over the Rolling Stone article that led to the sacking of Gen. Stanley McChrystal—mesmerized, that is, until I actually read it. Now I’m just plain baffled over what the fuss was all about.Because I am a retired Army Reserve officer who recently spent a year in Iraq, as well as a lifelong journalist, many of my colleagues have asked me for my take on this admittedly bizarre episode. Some have suggested this was a hatchet job by reporter Michael Hastings, or that McChrystal was “set up,” or that Hastings violated confidentiality by using unguarded, off-the-record quotes.
I heard NPR’s Michelle Norris interview Hastings by phone from Kandahar, Afghanistan, on June 22, the same day the article became available online and the feces hit the fan. He insisted that when the infamous “bite me” comment was made about Vice President Biden, “I had a tape recorder running in one hand and a notebook in the other.”
Amid all the media hype, I heard Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say the day McChrystal was sacked that “I was nearly sick…Literally, physically, I couldn’t believe it … I was stunned.”
Once I finally grabbed some time to read the 8,000-word article, I kept waiting for some bombshell quote from McChrystal about his commander in chief, something that would make a hard-bitten admiral retch. I came away concluding that Mullen must have a peptic ulcer if he became sick that easily.
The thing that struck me was how few direct quotes from McChrystal Hastings has in an 8,000-word supposed “profile.” Virtually all the quotes that got so much news play came from McChrystal’s aides, not from himself. The only direct quote that could have upset the Beltway crowd was when McChrystal received an e-mail via BlackBerry from Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, with Hastings present. According to Hastings’ account: “’Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke,’ he groans. ‘I don’t even want to open it.’ He clicks on the message and reads the salutation out loud, then stuffs the BlackBerry back in his pocket, not bothering to conceal his annoyance.”
Journalistically speaking, Hastings’ article is a mix of the right, the wrong and the ugly.
|Gen. Stanley McChrystal is pictured with President Obama in this screenshot from an ABC News report about McChrystal. (Credit: ABC News, YouTube, )|
The right: I see no hatchet job here at all. Hastings praises McChrystal on several fronts, exposes his foibles and eccentricities at others. He neither pillories him nor fawns over him. His description of the hostility of McChrystal’s own troops to his policy of minimizing civilian casualties was remarkably forthright. In other words, he’s balanced and objective, as a good reporter is supposed to be. His research was exhaustive and impressive, such as McChrystal’s reputation as a rebel while a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from 1972-76.
Also, I see no betrayal of confidentiality, as some have suggested. Hastings conceded in his NPR interview that such banter like the “bite me” remark is common among military personnel under stress who haven’t seen their families in months. I can attest to that. Still, no one ever told Hastings their remarks were off the record, nor has anyone denied them. Surely a warrior like McChrystal would not meekly consent to being cashiered if he felt he was misquoted.
(Hours after I wrote this column, I learned The Washington Post reported that officials in Kabul now say that Hastings violated the ground rules of his embed and that he “quoted the general and his staff in conversations that he was allowed to witness but not report.” Rolling Stone executive editor Eric Bates, the Post reports, denies any ground rules were violated. So it is now a he said-he said situation. If it turns out that Hastings in fact agreed to ground rules and then ignored them, I’ll retract my defense of him, because he will have made life very difficult for future embedded reporters and set the cause of press coverage of combat operations back to the time of Grenada.)
I’m also astonished that McChrystal would confide to a reporter he voted for Obama. Generals usually keep their political feelings classified. No one was even sure Eisenhower was a Republican until he resigned as NATO commander in 1952 and announced his presidential candidacy. Colin Powell did not reveal his party affiliation until after his military retirement.
A more appropriate question besides, “Why would they say such things in front of a reporter?” would be, “Why Rolling Stone?” It doesn’t exactly have a reputation as being pro-military, not that Hastings’ article could be considered anti-military. McChrystal’s civilian press aide, Duncan Boothby, who apparently arranged Hastings’ embed, resigned the day before McChrystal was sacked. If he were a Roman soldier, Boothby probably would have fallen on his own sword.
Ironically, it was Rolling Stone that reported an unguarded quote by then-Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz in 1976 that led to Butz’s resignation. John Dean, of Watergate fame, was covering the 1976 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone when Butz told an incredibly tasteless racial joke aboard a campaign plane—in front of Dean. Butz never said it was off the record, so into Dean’s story it went. (If you haven’t already heard the joke, don’t even ask.)
|McChrystal is pictured here in this screenshot from an MSNBC report. (Credit: MSNBC, YouTube)|
The wrong: Hastings has far too many hearsay quotes, and in some cases mere paraphrases, from unnamed aides saying what McChrystal said. That would earn a D in any intro to newswriting course.
There are surprisingly few quotes from McChrystal himself in this 8,000-word piece. Hastings quotes other sources by name, including McChrystal’s wife, Annie. Why not name the aides? He obviously knew their names; they’re over the right breast pocket, and he was there for a month.
For example, it was an unnamed aide, not McChrystal, who made the “bite me” comment about Biden. It was an unnamed aide, not McChrystal, who commented on the Holbrooke e-mail, “Make sure you don’t get any of that on your leg.”
Another example: “’The Boss says he’s (Holbrooke) like a wounded animal,’ says a member of the general’s team. ‘Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous. He’s a brilliant guy, but he just comes in, pulls on a lever, whatever he can grasp onto. But this is COIN (counter-insurgency), and you can’t just have someone yanking on s***.’”
Oddly enough, Holbrooke is State Department and was not even in McChrystal’s chain of command. And the only high official McChrystal and his team held in high esteem was Holbrooke’s boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Yet another example: “One aide calls (presidential security adviser) Jim Jones, a retired four-star general and veteran of the Cold War, a ‘clown’ who remains ‘stuck in 1985.’ Politicians like McCain and Kerry, says another aide, ‘turn up, have a meeting with Karzai, criticize him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly, it’s not very helpful.’”
The ugly: The provocative subhead under the headline “The Runaway General,” says, “Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s top commander in Afghanistan, has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House.”
Hastings, of course, probably had nothing to do with that subhead. That’s an editor’s job. No one in the article is ever quoted using the buzz word “wimps” in reference to the president or vice president, and there is absolutely nothing in the article to suggest that either McChrystal or his staff really believed Obama, Biden, Holbrooke, Jones and the others they disparaged were more of an enemy than the Taliban or al-Qaida. Nothing. Inexcusably misleading. Bad subhead, bad journalism.
So, we get back to the bad judgment of these military guys making such radioactive comments in front of a reporter. They’re supposed to know better. Maybe they were just so super pissed off with the situation that the stress of it overrode their collective judgment. Special operations guys do tend to be mavericks. However, Obama had to sack McChrystal if he was going to “maintain good order and discipline,” the military’s euphemism for not making waves. I know enough about accountability in the military to know that those aides’ careers are also at an end. Gen. David Petraeus, McChrystal’s successor, is going to clean house when he gets to Kabul. I don’t envy them.
Meanwhile, don’t feel too sorry for McChrystal. The retirement pay of a four-star general with more than 34 years’ service is $12,000-plus per month. (One can calculate his retirement pay by computing his salary with a retirement pay calculator.) Also, he’s going to make a killing on his memoirs and the lecture circuit. Wanna bet? He’ll probably have his own show soon on Fox!
If, in the way of contrast, you want to read a real hatchet job on a general, I cite Stan Bauer’s article exactly a year ago in The Nation on the Iraqi Special Operations Force (ISOF), whose U.S. adviser was Brig. Gen. Simeon Trombitas.
I, and you, wouldn’t know it was a hatchet job if I hadn’t spent a year on Trombitas’ staff in Baghdad’s Green Zone. In a way, I was indirectly responsible for encouraging him to be more open with the media. Eventually, Trombitas granted interviews to Reuters, FoxNews and The Nation, that I know of. Bauer’s article came out even as I was outprocessing at Fort Benning, Ga., to return to my civilian incarnation as a journalism professor. I was aghast at what I read: slanted reporting, innuendo, half-truths and some out-and-out inaccuracies. He even described the color of Trombitas’ mustache incorrectly! It’s black, not gray. (See for yourself here.)
The provocative headline on his article: “Iraq’s new death squad.” Bauer obviously went to Iraq with a preconceived idea of what he wanted to write, highlighted isolated cases that corroborated that idea and ignored anything that didn’t.
ISOF is an Iraqi commando unit that was organized and trained by U.S. Special Forces to go after the terrorists who were then responsible for 10,000 civilian deaths a year. Bauer got a lot of his background information correct, but he cited isolated incidents in which ISOF raided the wrong houses and roughed up or shot the wrong people to compare it with the death squads in El Salvador and in Colombia of 20 and 30 years ago. That’s too much of a stretch.
“Trombitas says he is ‘very proud of what was done in El Salvador’ but avoids the fact that special forces trained there by the United States in the early 1980s were responsible for the formation of death squads that killed more than 50,000 civilians thought to be sympathetic with leftist guerrillas. . . . In the early 1990s, U.S. Special Forces trained and worked closely with an elite Colombian police unit strongly suspected of carrying out some of the murders attributed to Los Pepes, a death squad that became the backbone of the country’s current paramilitary organization.”
He adds later parenthetically: “(Trombitas served in El Salvador from 1989-90 and in Colombia from 2003-2005, after these incidents took place.)”
Well, not quite. U.S. advisers to El Salvador were actually responsible for reining in the human rights abuses committed by military units there, and Col. Mark Hamilton was responsible for the breakthrough negotiations that led to the signing of the peace accord in 1991.
I saw the same reining in when I was in Iraq, an effort to change the mindset of an officer corps that had served under Saddam Hussein.
Of ISOF, Bauer wrote: “U.S. Special Forces advisers have done little to respond to allegations of abuse. Civilian pleas, public protests, complaints by Iraqi Army commanders about the ISOF’s actions and calls for disbanding it by members of Parliament have not pushed the US government to take a hard look at the force they are creating. Instead, US advisers dismiss such claims as politically motivated.”
That’s half-true. There were complaints, but the U.S. side, bent on winning hearts and minds, did respond and would lean on the Iraqis to clean up their act. We were instrumental in having an inspector general’s office added to ISOF’s parent organization, the Counter-Terrorism Bureau. The IG was given free rein to investigate human rights abuses and regularly took punitive action. Bauer ignores the thousands of bona fide terrorists the ISOF was responsible for killing or capturing, or the fact that ISOF was precluded from conducting raids without warrants signed by civilian judges.
Bauer wrote: “Accounts of older ISOF operations I heard around Baghdad suggest that the Americans may have knowingly allowed violence against civilians.”
“Suggest?” “May?” Not very convincing reporting, and from what I saw it was not true at all.
And there was this: “In December (2008) the ISOF arrested as many as thirty-five officials in the Interior Ministry who were thought to be in opposition to (Prime Minister) Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party.”
I was there and remember that incident well. It was an elite unit of the National Police, not ISOF, that staged that raid. I remember it well because everyone on our staff went “Whew!” when the incident hit the media.
Trombitas has since been promoted to major general and until a few weeks ago commanded the joint task force in charge of the relief effort in Haiti. He is now commander of U.S. Army South at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
Final word: There are plenty of mistakes made in any military unit, some worthy of press scrutiny more than others. But it’s a good idea to keep them in perspective, not to embellish them, and to cite sources on the record.
|ROBERT BUCKMAN, Ph.D., is an associate professor of communication and head of the print journalism sequence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He is a member of both the Ethics Committee and the International Journalism Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the author of a reference book on Latin America and a regular freelance contributor to newspapers on Latin American politics.|