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BOOK REVIEW: "The Operators" by Michael Hastings

Blue Rider Press (2012)
"The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan" by Michael Hastings
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REVIEW:  The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in
by Michael Hastings  (Blue
Rider Press)  2012

As the depressing headlines continue to remind us,
it is increasingly clear that America’s military seemingly endless involvement
in Afghanistan needs to be wrapped up – and quickly – before another soldier or
civilian is maimed or killed.

Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has become America’s latest
Vietnam. It’s a quagmire pitting the world’s greatest fighting force against a
primitive tribal culture who know nothing but fighting and war. The Soviet
Union, and the British before them, have tried to overcome the “poisoned
chalice” that is Afghanistan and now America is being forced to face the facts
that the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people is a lost

Enter Michael Hastings. This early thirtysomething
journalist, writing for Rolling Stone,
is a bit of a war junkie who had been in Iraq and was given an assignment to
profile U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the freewheeling commander of NATO’s
International Security Assistance Force in the Afghanistan war.

The resulting article Hastings wrote for Rolling Stone – released in June 2010 –
was headlined “The Runaway General” and proved fairly damning for Gen.
McChrystal and his civilian associates. As a result, McChrystal was relieved of
command by President Obama. The Operators
is the book where Hastings explains what led up to the article, his time in
Afghanistan, Europe, the Middle East and back in Washington and the aftermath
of the release of his explosive article.

The 379-page book is absolutely fascinating and
Hastings, a terrific example of the new “journalist-commentator” class in
America, has him in Paris with McChrystal and his team, waiting to fly on to
Kabul. Hastings gives the reader an intimate inside look into how the military’s
upper echelon really think.

While there in Paris, he overhears remarks like when
McChrystal laughs when a staff member refers to Vice-President Joe Biden as “Bite
me.” And the team refers to itself as “Team America,” a reference to the
comedic film about U.S. cluelessness.

Hastings writes that while in Paris, the McChrystal
team got “totally shitfaced” while drinking heavily (Hastings doesn’t drink –
he listens and takes notes) and they get excited at the thought of “Big Stan” the
“rock star” being “on the cover of the Rolling
” and start singing the hit novelty song by Dr. Hook and the Medicine

Hastings writes that as they drank and sang, several
McChrystal staff members make subtle threats, saying

“You’re not going to f*ck us, are you?” asks one
staff member.

Hastings responds: “I’m going to write a story; some
of the stuff you’ll like, some of the stuff you probably won’t like.”

Another staffer then says: “We’ll hunt you down and
kill you if we don’t like what you write.”

But Hastings, ever the observant scribe, stays true
to his profession and puts the boozy bravado of the McChrystal team aside and
reports what he sees and hears. And yes, Gen. McChrystal got too comfortable
with the idea of possibly being on the cover of the famous magazine (Lady Gaga
actually appeared on the cover of that issue) and it seems as if he wanted to
come across as cool.

But for Hastings, while McChrystal is interesting
enough for a military general (and the guy responsible for covering up Pat Tillman’s
death), the war isn’t “cool.” McChrystal was working on “counterinsurgency”
(aka COIN) where soldiers are to “avoid the trap of winning tactical  victories – but suffering strategic defeats –
by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the
people.” Also, McChrystal orders to “fly less recklessly and shoot less
recklessly” which he expects will lead to “a cultural shift within our forces.”
As Hastings discovers, these orders come with a cost – soldiers feel as if they
can’t actually fight terrorists and are therefore more vulnerable.

Hastings doesn’t hold back in describing the
subjects in his book. Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, he of the funny
hat, is the U.S. ally who is a corrupt and thin-skinned bumbler who

And Afghanistan, as McChrystal explains, is a “buffer
state between great powers and that “there’s tremendous cultural aversion to
change. It’s not Islam, it’s not Taliban, it’s not Al_Qaeda. It’s Afghan
culture. It’s cultural conservatism.” And the goal? McChrystal says it is to turn
back the clock to the period “between the fifties and the seventies, when
American backpackers and hippies traveled safely through the country. The goal
is to turn the clock back to 1979,” before the Soviet invasion.

Training the Afghan army, as Hastings writes, is a
Sisyphean chore. When the Afghan recruits aren’t smoking hash, torturing dogs
or raping children, there is a growing chasm between Afghans and Americans that
is getting soldiers killed. It is all too clear that there is little trust between the two cultures and little is
being accomplished.We see that today in the headlines where recruits gain access to areas where soldiers are and kill as many as they can. As one Afghan leader explained, the Afghans don't care about democracy.

A particularly eye-opening chapter is when Hastings
visits an American combat outpost where a soldier had been killed by
insurgents. It is clear that the grunts do not like the Afghans and they didn’t
respect McChrystal because his “rules of engagement” are getting guys killed. A meeting between McChrystal and a group of American soldiers goes over like a lead balloon after he justifies the new "rules of engagement" and how they can't kill everyone. But as one soldier fires back, "Ninety percent of the people are not friendly. All they want to do is kill us." It is clear that McChrystal and his men are entirely different pages.

Later, one frustrated soldier told author Hastings: “We should
just drop at f*cking bomb on this place. You sit and ask yourself, what are we
doing here?”

It’s a powerful question and one of many that are
posed in The Operators. This is the
sort of hard hitting, modern war book that makes one pause and really consider
what America’s role is in the world and what it should be. Dumping billions
into that so-called “poisoned chalice” – where crime, corruption and illiteracy
is rampant – makes little sense. Terrorists can train and plot anywhere.

Afghanistan’s populace shows little interest in
changing their ways, especially when perceived imperialists are forcing it on
them. The Operators demonstrates that
and it also shows that even the top brass is not immune from the pitfalls that bedevil
those who fight pointless wars.

2012 West Marie Media

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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