Beneath the Controversy, Lots of Good Reporting in Rolling Stone’s McChrystal Story

The reaction to Rolling Stone’s profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal has been fast and furious. But while we wonder what’s going to happen with McChrystal, we shouldn’t lose sight of the excellent reporting in the Rolling Stone piece.

Author Michael Hastings mentions in the story that he spent a month around the general. He collected a lot of string over that time, and used it to great effect. Yes, it’s good to know that McChrystal likes Bud Light Lime and Talladega Nights, and fascinating to witness much of McChrystal’s inner circle get drunk at a Paris bar. And the rude gestures and Biden comments are getting plenty of notice.

But I’m talking about passages like this one, about the way McChrystal drives himself and his staff:

He also set a manic pace for his staff, becoming legendary for sleeping four hours a night, running seven miles each morning, and eating one meal a day. (In the month I spend around the general, I witness him eating only once.) It’s a kind of superhuman narrative that has built up around him, a staple in almost every media profile, as if the ability to go without sleep and food translates into the possibility of a man single-handedly winning the war.

There’s also a very powerful exchange between the general and some disgruntled soldiers, fighting the fight, and trying to adhere to McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy:

As the discussion ends, McChrystal seems to sense that he hasn’t succeeded at easing the men’s anger. He makes one last-ditch effort to reach them, acknowledging the death of Cpl. Ingram. “There’s no way I can make that easier,” he tells them. “No way I can pretend it won’t hurt. No way I can tell you not to feel that… .I will tell you, you’re doing a great job. Don’t let the frustration get to you.” The session ends with no clapping, and no real resolution. McChrystal may have sold President Obama on counterinsurgency, but many of his own men aren’t buying it.

That’s some nice reporting, and it takes time to do it.

NBC talked with Hastings, who is right now embedded with the U.S. military. And he sure wasn’t counting on all the time he got with McChrystal and his inner circle:

Hastings says he stumbled onto unprecedented access with McChrystal. After McChrystal’s press advisers accepted a request for the profile, Hastings joined McChrystal and his team in Paris. It was supposed to be a two-day visit, followed up with more time in Afghanistan.

The volcano in Iceland, however, changed those plans. As the ash disrupted air travel, Hastings ended up being “stuck” with McChrystal and his team for 10 days in Paris and Berlin. McChrystal had to get to Berlin by bus. Hastings says McChrystal and his aides were drinking on the road trip “the whole way.”

“They let loose,” he said. “I don’t blame them; they have a hard job.”

Hastings then traveled with McChrystal in Afghanistan for more time. What was supposed to be a two-day visit, turned into a month, in part due to disruptions of the volcano.

Being “stuck” with McChrystal turned out pretty well for Hastings and his readers.

Hastings also said that, though he spent a lot of time with the general, McChrystal knew their conversations were part of his reporting for the Rolling Stone story. “Most of the time I had a tape recorder in his face or a notebook in my hand,” he told NBC. And he pointed out that most of comments in the piece that are causing a stir came in their first day or so together—not after a month of charming, or lulling, the general.

McChrystal’s team hasn’t challenged the accuracy of the story. But that doesn’t mean they like the result. As our Liz Cox Barrett pointed out, Duncan Boothby, the civilian press aide heavily involved in arranging things for Hastings, resigned promptly Tuesday morning.

It’s interesting that, as The Washington Post reported, Boothby was “one of a growing number of civilians hired as press aides for senior military brass as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to generate considerable public interest and controversy.”

Professional media handlers can sometimes do good work, I guess. But they’ve got their limitations. And, as Hastings sharply describes McChrystal, he may be more than any press handler can handle:

In the late 1990s, McChrystal shrewdly improved his inside game, spending a year at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and then at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he co-authored a treatise on the merits and drawbacks of humanitarian interventionism. But as he moved up through the ranks, McChrystal relied on the skills he had learned as a troublemaking kid at West Point: knowing precisely how far he could go in a rigid military hierarchy without getting tossed out. Being a highly intelligent badass, he discovered, could take you far – especially in the political chaos that followed September 11th. “He was very focused,” says Annie. “Even as a young officer he seemed to know what he wanted to do. I don’t think his personality has changed in all these years.”

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at