ONE OF the most satisfying aspects of Michael Hastings new book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, is how the good guys in the war in Afghanistan actually turn out to be the bad guys. If you only read books by stenographer journalists who copy press releases written by the State Department and embed only with US troops―there are gobs of them―you might think American generals like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal really did intend to win the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, instead of seeing these generals for what they really are: cold, calculating, career ladder climbing killers who are clueless about military strategy and who lived in a dense bubble surrounded by Yes Men.
A contributing editor for Rolling Stone, Hastings has semi-rock-star status, and he uses it to his advantage. His prose is surly, full of F-bombs, and unencumbered by the journalistic pretension to be objective. Hastings doesn’t write neutrally. He doesn’t just want to tell stories—although he has great ones. He wants to get at the truth. After finishing the book, readers will hate the war machine and the four-star generals that cynically operate it, sending soldiers to their deaths for empire. That is a triumph of reporting.
The Operators exposes how the Pentagon’s “Information Operations” systematically manipulates the media. “The Pentagon had about twenty-seven thousand people working on public relations [in Iraq], spending $4.7 billion in a single year,” Hastings reveals. “We co-opted the media on that one,” McChrystal confides about Iraq. That the media obediently spins the war in Afghanistan, Hastings book provides ample evidence. Using a timeline from 2001 up to 2008, Hastings lays out all the mainstream media declarations of success and progress in Afghanistan, despite overwhelming, documented evidence to the contrary.
In his chapter “A Short History of a Horrible Idea,” he traces the origins of modern counterinsurgency (COIN) policy and demolishes the deceit that is counterinsurgency and the “COINdinistas” that promote it.
The book exposes the presidential election fraud in 2009 that was facilitated by Kai Eide, the former United Nations special representative to Afghanistan. Eide is given proof by numerous Afghan election officials and Peter Galbraith, his number-two man at the United Nations, that the Karzai election was riddled with fraud. Eide insists it is not, and warns Galbraith not to talk to the media about the “ghost polling” centers he saw all around the country. Hastings writes that, according to Galbraith, “Eide wants to avoid a runoff, which means Karzai has to get over 50 percent of the vote. Eide wants to count the fraudulent votes to get Karzai over the top.” Galbraith is fired and goes on to publicly accuse the UN of helping to cover up election fraud in Afghanistan.
Hastings joins McChrystal’s entourage in Paris as they drunkenly stagger around Europe like ugly Americans. At formal receptions in five star hotels and military academies, the general, who despises public events and dinners with dignitaries, tries to convince French and German generals with PowerPoint presentations and stale speeches printed on index cards to commit more troops to Afghanistan. McChrystal’s main message: Man Up! At the all male posse after-parties fueled by Bud Light Lime and surges of testosterone, the gay “jokes” are de rigueur. McChrystal and Co.’s contempt for the people of Afghanistan is on full display when they start to do an Afghan wedding dance and make up a song with a chorus that they all shout: “AFGHANISTAN! AFGHANISTAN!”
Hastings doesn’t drink alcohol when he’s on assignment so he can think clearly about what he hears and sees. He takes a break from the war, flies to Dubai and checks into the Atlantis Palm Hotel. He binge drinks to deal with his PTSD.
Still in his twenties, Hastings has been traumatized by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He survived a suicide bombing, saw severed body parts, and watched as a medic stopped profuse bleeding from the groin of an Afghan teen. His girlfriend was murdered in Iraq. Questioning his work, he writes: “The correspondent’s identity becomes inseparable from war. His essence, his habits, his worldview, prestige, personal life.” After a three-day diet of alcohol and cigarettes, Hastings, the war junkie, heads back to Afghanistan for more war.
The book doesn’t glamorize war, or make heroes out of soldiers. Instead, Hastings shows the troops challenging the war and disagreeing with McChrystal. One soldier tells him, “Fuck McChrystal.” At a meeting on their forward operating base, soldiers tell the general that they’re losing the war and they reject counterinsurgency doctrine. One soldier says, “Ninety percent of the people here are not friendly. All they want is to kill us. Everybody else is watching the way we come in to put in the IEDs.”
Hastings notes that IEDs are responsible for more than 60 percent of American casualties. But McChrystal can’t feel the troop’s pain. He says, “That’s the way the game is, it’s complex.” McChrystal is also a master of putting a spin on unpleasant truths. As commander of special ops, McChrystal led a cover up of Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire, and lied to Tillman’s parents and to the press.
In his must-read chapter “An Army of None,” Hastings nixes the notion that American and Afghan soldiers trust or even like one another. A study by American trainers asked 600 Afghans and 500 American soldiers to list complaints about each side. The list sums up the futility of the US training Afghans to “take over” their own country. Verbatim quotes from the Afghans include: US soldiers kill many innocent civilians. They always shout and yell “motherfucker.” They are crazy. They are too arrogant. They treat us like thieves. They will break doors in before the people can answer. They pee all over, right in front of civilians, including females. Two soldiers even defecated within public view. Verbatim quotes from American soldiers on Afghans include: They are high as fuck. They are totally infiltrated by insurgents. Theft among them is bad. They are garbage, shit. These guys are not soldiers: they are a rag tag bunch of thugs and civilians dressed in uniforms. They fucking stink. I’d just as soon shoot them as work with them. The people don’t want us here and we don’t like them.
Throughout the book, Hastings grapples with reporting the truth, knowing it could mean he’ll be denied access to military personnel, his sources won’t go on record, and he’ll be blacklisted. He constantly feels the pull of the green giant, the US war machine, the bloody bubble, but luckily for his readers, he remains outside of it.
The Operators is a vitally important book because it gets behind the scenes and reveals what the warmongers really think and do. It’s written in clear, accessible, and engaging language for a mass audience.
Hastings writes toward the end of the book, “The simple and terrifying reality, forbidden from discussion in America, was that despite spending $600 billion a year on the military, despite having the best fighting force the world has ever known, they [the US military] were getting their asses kicked by illiterate peasants who made bombs out of manure and wood.”