In The Operators: the wild and terrifying inside story of America’s war in Afghanistan, war journalist Michael Hastings describes the self-inflicted downfall of General Stan McChrystal and the quagmire of the war in Afghanistan.

Hastings was working for Rolling Stone, and McChrystal and his staff, who tended to treat McChrystal as a rock star, thought it a cool idea to invite Hastings along for a trip to Paris and Berlin. Hastings observed and recorded unprofessional partying and critical comments about the Obama Administration. The publication of the article led to McChrystal’s forced resignation. In short, McChrystal’s vanity and desire for media coverage led to his downfall.

Hastings’ article describes the major disconnect between the view of soldiers on the ground and the political consensus in Washington, D.C.  The soldiers on the ground know how badly the war is going and how incompetent the Afghan government is.  Karzai is thoroughly corrupt, hates the Americans, and is quite possibly mentally ill.

The following paragraph about the Afghan army blew my mind:

The stats: Only 20 percent of new recruits can read.  One out of four deserts the ranks on a regular basis. Child rape is endemic in both the police and Afghan armies; in the south, Afghan soldiers take boys as young as eight or ten years old as lovers, dressing them up as girls at parties.  It makes the Western forces very uncomfortable. (“Boys are for pleasure, women are for children” is a popular expression in the country.)

Afghan soldiers often steal, are often very stoned, are lazy and cowardly, and they like practicing killing on American soldiers:

In one five-and-a-half month period, 16 percent of American causalities are caused by Afghan security forces killing soldiers in the American Army. In a three-year period, at least fifty-eight NATO soldiers have been killed [by Afghan soldiers]…. ISAF decides they better classify the study, and quick,. The study gets classified, but not before it gets leaked to The Wall Street Journal.

“U.S. soldiers perceived that 50 percent of the ANA [Afghan National Army] were Islamic radicals.” … NATO has already spent more than $30 billion training the Afghan security forces. Police officers regularly accept bribes; it’s the least trusted institution in a land of mistrusted institutions.

A lot of the book consists of Hastings accounts of his interviews and interactions with General McChrystal, McChrystal’s staff, and soldiers in Afghanistan.  Most of the military guys have little respect for the politicians — which got McChrystal fired.

The most enlightening chapter of Hastings’ book, for me, is “The Arena,” wherein Hastings presents his theory that soldiers’ highest duty is to protect their honor. What’s important isn’t money and isn’t even winning wars. Men like General McChrystal

were never driven by money — like a bloke from Goldman Sachs — but by something ‘mightier than the self, a great endeavor undertaken by men who knew what it meant to be in the arena.’ … The idea of the arena came from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous speech, trashing critics and valuing the experience of risk above all else. … There was little difference in victory or failure. The sacrifice of blood had an almost spiritual value beyond politics, beyond success, beyond good and evil… It was as brave and honorable to take a bullet for the brotherhood as it was to cover up a bullet’s mistake. It didn’t matter that in Afghanistan the U.S. military had come up short again and again. What mattered is that they tried. 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 had ever known, they were getting their asses kicked by illiterate peasants who made bombs out of manure and wood. The arena acted as a barrier, protecting their sacrifices from the uncomfortable realities of the current war — that it might be a total waste of time and resources that historians would look back on cringing.

Hastings thinks that Obama was coerced or tricked by General McChrystal and others at the Pentagon into supporting the escalation and nation-building in Afghanistan, against Obama’s better instincts, against Biden’s wishes, and against the wishes of Obama’s supporters. “One of the reasons he agreed to the escalation in Afghanistan was because he felt he would be politically vulnerable if he didn’t — he might look weak on national security, he couldn’t overrule his generals. He is allied on this issue mostly with Republicans, people who don’t like him and are never going to support him anyway.”

Obama ran as an anti-war candidate in 2008, but faced with decisions as commander-in-chief he gave into the militarists and repeatedly went out of his way to pursue “centrist” policies.

Obama did this repeatedly: reach out to the Republicans with significant compromises that infuriated his supporters, only to be handed his head on a platter when the Republicans moved further to the right. They sure played him for the fool. Either that or Obama just isn’t as liberal as he portrayed himself to be while campaigning.

Hastings was torn between his desire to please General McChrystal and his staff, who gave him unprecedented access and who treated him as a friend, and his desire to expose the injustice and stupidity of the war.

Just when the article was first being published, Hastings was back in Afghanistan doing an article for a different magazine.  At a helicopter air force base, soldiers were avidly reading the article about McChrystal. Several of them asked him if he’d read it.   “I wrote it,” he said.  Hastings was afraid that some of the soldiers would be angry, but most of them welcomed the article, because they too knew the war wasn’t going well and that they were being asked to risk their lives for a lie.

Obviously, some people in the military were angry at Hastings for his article that brought down their hero McChrystal.  Some of Hastings’ opponents questioned his professionalism, claiming he’d broken faith by exposing material that was off-the-record.  Hastings says that some people in the White House and the Pentagon quite liked his article. Surprisingly, quite a few journalists were angry at him too. Hastings says that some journalists have “paid gigs at defense industry-funded think tanks, essentially getting financial support from the very same people they were supposed to be covering.” So Hastings coined the phrase “media-military-industrial complex.”