Book Review: "The Operators" by Michael Hastings


The journalist who ended Gen. Stanley McChrystal's tenure as commander of the Afghanistan war is back with "The Operators," a book about Washington, D.C., power plays, the civilian/military divide in America and the Afghanistan campaign under President Barack Obama.

Michael Hastings has been around for a while, with a slew of war-reporting bonafides under his belt. But he rose to fame with "The Runaway General," his 2010 Rolling Stone article that showcased McChrystal and his staff talking all kinds of trash about civilian leadership in the White House and elsewhere.

The ensuing controversy led to McChrystal stepping down from command, ending a high-profile career that included a stint leading special operations troops in the hunt for al-Qaida forces in Iraq.

Much of "The Operators" is more gossipy juice connected to the Rolling Stone piece. While reporting the McChrystal profile in 2010, Hastings was supposed to spend just a short time with the general and his team in Europe as they attempted to gin up support for an Afghanistan surge among NATO allies.

But the time McChrystal's self-described "Team America" spent in Europe was lengthened as the result of Iceland's volcanic ash cloud that grounded aircraft in 2010, inadvertently giving Hastings more time with them.

"The Operators" includes more bloviating from McChrystal's staff of high-ranking active-duty and former military folks, and also features the general himself nearly face-planting on a Paris street after too many drinks.

The book moves back and forth between Hastings' European embed and the lead up to the Afghanistan war under Obama.

"The Operators" repeatedly questions just what America is doing in Afghanistan. The counterinsurgency mission pushed by guys like McChrystal has little or no connection to the stated mission of eliminating al-Qaida in Afghanistan and denying the group sanctuary.

Al-Qaida's numbers among insurgents also are minimal at best, Hastings writes, and none of the terror plots of the past 10 years were planned in Afghanistan.

Hastings castigates the military for manipulating the White House and the public into a troop increase and an escalation in the war.

Perhaps most interestingly, he sheds light on the continued divide between civilian and military America and the role that divide played in the U.S. troop increase in Afghanistan.

Members of the military leadership, like McChrystal, responsible for the Afghan war's escalation have grown to see themselves as immune to civilian scrutiny, Hastings writes. He also calls out America and the media for too often deifying military brass.

"We'd grown accustomed to seeing the general as a superman - and the press rarely challenged this narrative in their coverage," he writes.

In pushing for the troop surge, McChrystal and his team were members of "a warrior class that had lost touch with the civilian world," Hastings writes.

"He'd spent much of the last decade overseas consumed by the conflict, preferring war zones to Washington," Hastings writes. "He'd seen his wife, Annie, fewer than thirty days a year since 2003. When he and his men did have to deal with civilians, they were accustomed to ritual genuflections of awe."

"The Operators" chronicles the behind-the-scenes workings of America's renewed push into Afghanistan, a mission that has cost more American, Afghan and NATO blood, and appears more troubling and endless by the day.

Readers' views on Afghanistan will likely color their opinion of the book, but everyone can enjoy the insider juice of McChrystal's ash cloud European fiasco.

The harsher issues that Hastings points out are also worthy of consideration, no matter one's political leanings.

Whether or not they wear the uniform, Americans should figure out for themselves why we are still in Afghanistan. "The Operators" presents a slew of reasons for getting out.

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