January 21, 2012

Saturday Morning Essay: Michael Hastings & "The Operators"

Brought to you by Peet's Coffee, as always.

I'm finishing up a very good read, The Operators, by Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone writer who achieved quite a media buzz a couple of years ago when his disclosures of "off the cuff" remarks by General Stanley McChrystal, who was then the commanding officer in Afghanistan, caused the sacking of McChrystal by an embarrassed White House. Hastings is a good, lively writer in the Hunter S. Thompson/Matt Taiibi mode, and had the courage to exercise the license he was apparently given by McChrystal's entourage to write his story any way he saw fit. The way he saw fit was simply to reproduce the scenes in Afghanistan, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere in which McChrystal and his "Team America," a rowdy, hard-drinking, profane staff of somewhat iconoclastic career Army guys spoke at length about what they thought about Obama, Hamid Karzai (the President of Afghanistan, elected under very dubious conditions), Gen. James Jones, the National Security head (called a "clown" by Team America), the various ambassadors and envoys to Afghanistan, such as Holbrooke and Eikenberry, and the counterproductive nature of the war in general. Indeed, some commentators thought this was the real reason McChrystal had to go, his "counterinsurgency math," by which he calculated that every innocent civilian killed in Afghanistan produced ten more insurgents against America and Karzai. Obviously, President Obama can't have that kind of logical deduction, coming from his own theater commander, on the cover of the Rolling Stone.

Hastings probably seemed like a tame mascot and Boswell to McChrystal's Dr. Johnson, but in fact Hastings has a keen mind and deep powers of observation and analysis, which proved McChrystal's undoing. McChrystal himself is an interesting subject, a liberal Democrat by inclination who is nevertheless a supremely ambitious careerist; it's just that his career is in the Special Ops section of the Army, and counterinsurgency in particular. Tall, gaunt, ascetic when he's in the combat theater, and a two-fisted drinker when he hits the bars in France and Berlin, McChrystal is a hard guy to pin down. He inspired intense loyalty among his Team America entourage, was considered enlightened and innovative in his approach to Afghanistan, yet he was involved in both the Pat Tillman and Abu Ghraib scandals

One scene stuck with me. In Berlin in 2009, McChrystal gave a lecture on Afghanistan to a group of German media figures. In the account given by Hastings, the lecture was a tour de force, an historical exposition of Afghanistan's thirty years of constant war, and in a country where about two-thirds of the population is younger than 25 (life expectancy in Afghanistan is 44), this fact alone means that the vast majority of Afghans have never experienced peace during their lifetimes. McChrystal described the tribalism, the drug trade, the corruption in the central government, the nature of the insurgency, the Taliban, everything. At the end of the lecture, one German reporter asked McChrystal a question that stunned Hastings; the reporter pointed out that McChrystal had mentioned Al-Qaeda only once.

This is a question, as Hastings notes, that an American reporter would never ask, nor probably even think to ask. Yet this is the putative reason we invaded in 2001, over ten years ago. What is somewhat reassuring to one's sanity (and to the reliability of one's own perceptions) is that Hastings, who had the privilege of an insider's perspective on the top command in Afghanistan (and was allowed to write about it), winds up asking the same common sense questions that occur to everyday Americans. Such as: why do terrorists, Al-Qaeda or otherwise, actually need a "safe haven" from which to plan attacks on America? Especially when one considers, as confirmed by the Report of the 9-11 Commission (which, I repeat, apparently no one has read, in or out of government), that the 9-11 plot was actually put together in Hamburg, Germany, Cairo, South Florida and Phoenix? Why is Afghanistan, the sixth poorest country in the world with a population of 30 million, with no real military capability and no nuclear weapons, actually any sort of threat to the United States?

The answers to these questions are obvious, and Hastings provides a valuable public service in lifting the veil on all the nonsensical propaganda which Obama and others use to justify this "necessary war." It isn't necessary at all, it's counter-productive, and it is carried on for two principal reasons:

1. As a money-making venture for the military-industrial complex, and for all the lobbyists the MIC supports (who in turn support their employees in the Congress and White House).

2. As a theater of operations where Army commanders can advance their career ambitions by participating in an actual war, sort of. It's a war in the sense that lots of people, Americans and especially Afghans, die violent deaths.

One could add that Afghanistan is also a political meme. By being for this war (again, sort of), President Obama can be Presidential and tough on terror. The war has no connection to American security, in reality, or even to the "war on terror" (whatever that is), as even Team America would probably concede; indeed, the book cites official studies by the Rand Corporation (best read with one's Dr. Strangelove voice) and by the CIA which demonstrate convincingly that combating terrorism with the ordinary criminal justice system is more effective than launching wars against countries that supposedly "harbor" terrorists. But the meta-reality of Media Discourse, a stupid and dumb beast, in which the Afghanistan war has a totemic or emblematic essence connected to America's righteous revenge for the outrage of 9-11, is the one that is debated on the campaign trail and among the regular toadies of the press (excluding guys like Hastings and Taiibi).

Why did we invade Afghanistan? That's a question that first occurred to me in the fall of 2001. Now Hastings has written a book which sheds a lot of light on that question. The impulse to invade (as an act of misplaced or impotent revenge) is probably distinct from the institutional reasons that have kept the war going for a period nearly three times as long as America's involvement in World War II (3 years, 8 months, versus 10 years, 3 months), but it still adds up to complete nonsense. I suspect that the answer, at bottom, is that we fight many wars because we have a huge military establishment that wants something to do and wants to justify its existence and all the careers attendant to it. You can't give those answers as the official rationale, so we torture logic to create propaganda that sustains these misbegotten adventures.