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Sunday, 6 May 2012

Don't let a journalist see you drink; review of The Operators, Michael Hastings (2012)

Most of the good residents of our noble, continental-shaped nation will not have a clue who Michael Hastings is but FOR SOME he's newsworthy because he has pulled out, at the last minute, from a couple of antipodean writers festivals due to more pressing engagements. Wanted on Los Angeles TV, Hastings decided not to travel half-way round the globe to Auckland and Sydney. There was also a call from Rolling Stone magazine, who wanted him, apparently, for something or other. Read the linked story for complete details. What it means, in short, is that Hastings now possesses a high profile. Having written the story, which was published in Rolling Stone, that led to the resignation of Stanley McChrystal, the general in charge of US forces in Afghanistan, in 2010, Hastings wrote a book that has cemented his fame in certain circles. Journalists, at least, will all be reading this book.

I never read the magazine story that caused US authorities such concern, but I bought the book and I can say with absolute conviction that it's a cracker. Wide-ranging, loose-limbed, confident and funny, The Operators (2012) takes you behind the scenes. Don't pay attention to the subtitle, 'The wild and terrifying inside story of America's war in Afghanistan', because it's a bit of overreach that self-consciously harks back to the magazine's heyday era with Hunter Thompson. It's a neat piece of hyperbole that is designed to hook you, but don't be fooled. The book is well researched and insightful.

What it also does more than anything, and this is so compelling to read, is take into account the public relations aspect of war. Opinion Stateside is as important for the generals on the ground in Kabul as the good offices of the Afghan president. This is a knowing biography of war and is worth every cent of the cover price. Politics is complex and requires a lot of effort to do well. Or at all.

Hastings also addresses one of the more controversial aspects of his undertaking, which is, of course, how far authorities should trust journalists. He talks about this quite candidly. Naturally people with power will be less willing, in the light of the debacle surrounding the magazine article, to encourage journalists to join the campaign trail (McChrystal's primary goal, it seems, is securing the resources he needs to prosecute the war in the way he thinks it should be prosecuted, so he's always playing politics). So Hastings has pissed in the pool, so to speak. But because he's a conviction journalist I don't think he looses any sleep over this. McChrystal wanted something from Hastings, after all. It wasn't just a one-sided arrangement. If you want publicity you run the risk of bringing attention to things that might cause ructions if they get out. This is what happens, and it's the way the people involved tread the line separating staid wisdom and reckless daring that makes the book so interesting.

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