The McChrystal Rolling Stone article: the story behind the story

The McChrystal Rolling Stone article was written by a freelance reporter who ended up in an impromptu 'embed' with McChrystal because of the Iceland volcano.

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Mark O’Donald/NATO/Rolling Stone/AP
Gen. Stanley McChrystal works aboard a C-130 over Afghanistan in this photo used in the McChrystal Rolling Stone article.

The Rolling Stone McChrystal article might never have exploded in Washington Wednesday if the Eyjafjallajokull volcano hadn’t erupted in Iceland this spring.

At least, that’s how Rolling Stone correspondent Michael Hastings has explained how his two-day stint with Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Paris turned into nearly a month-long “embed” with the US military officer who was, until Wednesday, in charge of the war in Afghanistan. Stranded in Europe, they traveled to Berlin together – and then later to Kabul and Washington.

Mr. Hastings, a salty Vermonter who earned his chops covering the Iraq war, was reached Wednesday by a number of US news outlets in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold. He is reporting on the ramp-up to an offensive that has been billed as key to McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy, which the more diplomatic Gen. David Petraeus will now oversee.

The comments McChrystal and his staff made to Hastings have many in Washington shaking their heads over how a top commander could let down his guard with what one outlet characterized as “an antiwar reporter from an antiwar magazine.”

By all accounts McChrystal crossed a red line by disparaging senior members of the Obama administration, and allowing his aides to do so as well – something that even McChrystal acknowledges he, and he alone, is responsible for.

But this was not a case of failing to hold one’s tongue during a one-hour, cross-legged interview in soft lamplight.

The Rolling Stone profile was sussed out over weeks in which Hastings, who in the past had prided himself on getting sources “drunk and singing,” followed McChrystal’s band from Parisian hotel rooms to dusty Afghan outposts with a tape recorder and notebook in hand “three-quarters of the time.”

The result was a not only controversial but rich portrait of McChrystal – from editor of a West Point literary magazine to a dad who doesn’t mind his son’s blue mohawk, to a (possibly unwitting) player in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire.

In interviews published by Newsweek and the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, where he went to high school, Hastings was quoted Wednesday as saying he was very surprised by the impact of his Rolling Stone profile.

But Hastings is not a naïve reporter, if only 30 years old. A veteran of Baghdad, where his girlfriend was killed after coming to join him, Hastings has – in his own words – spent time around Catholic school, county jail, rehab, and the presidential candidates of 2008.

His mission on the campaign trail, he wrote in a 2008 GQ piece, was “basically: Ride the buses and planes with the candidates, have big lunches and dinners on the expense account, get sources drunk and singing, then report back the behind-the-scenes story.”

Deriding Rudy Giuliani for making light of the war in Iraq, where he had a brother fighting, and curious about John McCain’s purported womanizing, Hastings said he had trouble being objective. But he was not apologetic.

"Objectivity is a fallacy,” he wrote.

He talked about the game in which “you try to be friendly and nonthreatening” with politicians’ aides to “build trust” – but dismissed the trust as an illusion. In the same GQ article, Hastings described trying to get presidential candidate Mike Huckabee in an unguarded moment – “swearing, or bringing in a hooker, or breaking out in spontaneous prayer.”

Hastings doesn’t try to come off as a saint, but on The Hastings Report, his blog that has 142 followers as of Wednesday, he says he greatly respects writers “who live their lives with integrity and without compromise.”


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