Obama and Petraeus: What's next? (AP photo)
Was it the four-letter words, used over and over, that brought down McChrystal?
ASK THIS | June 28, 2010
Would the Rolling Stone piece have had the same impact without so many curse words? And has the press focused too much on the personal slurs, and not enough on writer Michael Hastings's informative but bleak assessment of the war in Afghanistan?
By Barry Sussman
The American commander in Afghanistan was forced out and President Obama’s war policies are under sharp review because of a magazine article that used the word “fuck” or variations of it 18 times by my count.
Obama saw the article, summoned the commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to Washington and promptly fired him.
For impact, Hastings’s article is unsurpassed in America’s war decade.
A legitimate question is: Would it have gotten the same response without the vulgarities to underscore the contempt McChrystal and his group held for their elected and diplomatic counterparts? Without the “middle finger,” without a French diplomat referred to as a “fucking gay,” without “ballsier,” “piss off,” without a Pentagon “determined to kick the president’s ass,” without McChrystal’s crew “completely shitfaced” in a bar in Paris, without a leading adviser to Obama, former four-star general James Jones, referred to as a clown, and a leading diplomat – Richard Holbrooke – said to be “yanking on shit,” and so on. And without similar but more substantive comments from a soldier who has served three tours of combat: “We’re fucking losing this thing.”
It was Murrey Marder, the sponsor of the Nieman Watchdog Project, who got me started on the extent and impact of the dirty language. Marder, a former diplomatic reporter at the Washington Post, also made the point that, obscenities aside, the article was enormously informative – something largely overlooked in the press focus on personal slurs toward Obama, Vice President Biden and others.
Marder called the article “the most precise, devastating account of the war to date.” Even Henry Kissinger
weighed in on it. The vulgarities and the contempt may draw some readers and repel others, but they are indeed very powerful, as is Hastings’s negative outlook on the war. For example:
- It’s a fiction to think the U.S. actually has allies when it comes to Afghanistan. “Opposition to the war has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany's president and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops.”
- McChrystal and Obama failed to connect from the beginning. The White House felt the general was trying to bully Obama by leaking his request for 40,000 additional troops; McChrystal, according to his aides, felt Obama “looked intimidated” in their first meeting, with a dozen senior military advisers present.
- The prospects for any kind of success look bleak, and Obama is backing away from the deadline he set for beginning to withdraw troops in July 2011. Afghanistan is not only a quagmire for Obama but one that “he knowingly walked into.”
- The end in Afghanistan will “look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm.” “It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,” a chief aide to McChrystal is quoted as saying; “this is going to end in an argument.”
- The most powerful force shaping U.S. policy, Hastings wrote, was McChrystal and his tight-knit group; “there is no equivalent position on the diplomatic or political side.” Instead, “an assortment of administration players compete over the Afghan portfolio…This diplomatic incoherence has effectively allowed McChrystal’s team to call the shots and hampered efforts to build a stable and credible government in Afghanistan.”
- The press – at least until this Rolling Stone article – has given McChrystal a pass on alarming controversies. One was his active role in creating the impression that a well-known soldier, Pat Tillman, killed by Americans in an accident, had died at the hands of the Taliban. The other was “a scandal involving detainee abuse and torture.”
- Those closest to McChrystal feel that events in Afghanistan are even more “deeply fucked up” – there’s that word – than antiwar sentiment at home reflects. A defense analyst cited in the article says the game we are in right now “for strategic purposes, is to create the perception that we didn’t get run off.”
- Hastings also examines, intently, the entire policy of counterinsurgency and calls it fundamentally flawed.
The article indicates that McChrystal was likely to request more time and additional troops instead of exiting Afghanistan. The compelling question now is whether the new commander, General David Petraeus, will do the same. Or is there an agreement in place, or about to be put in place, “to create the perception that we didn’t get run off,” and, as Hastings might put it, just get the fuck out?
Rolling Stone has an occasional record of powerful political reporting; during the 2008 election campaign it had a profile of John McCain
that, by itself, could have destroyed his bid to become President had it drawn the attention it deserved. That article used the word ‘fuck’ four times. Four must not be enough; Nieman Watchdog took note of the piece
but hardly anyone in the mainstream media did, and it sank rapidly.
Suppose the New York Times or Washington Post or other news organizations ran an article with the same news and assessments as Rolling Stone but without the “fucks” and other vulgarities. Could they portray as sharply as Hastings did the McChrystal group’s contempt and ridicule of America’s highest elected elected officials and some of its leading diplomats? Could they have the same impact? Well, they haven’t until now.
But Rolling Stone magazine and websites like Nieman Watchdog can take liberties that most of the press can’t even if they’d want to, which is most unlikely. There is too much of a pull in the opposite direction. Rolling Stone magazine isn’t a family newspaper; it’s just the opposite: unruly, sometimes serious, and profane. If there's a place for these characteristics on occasion, it may be in the new digital media.
But not in the mainstream media. The other day I noticed a letter to the editor in the Washington Post complaining that the word “hell” had run in the Post 14 times in one week and the word “damn” four times. “I encourage you to be more diligent in maintaining standards,” the writer cautioned, saying that children read the Post.
Barry Sussman is the editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project. He is the author of The Great Cover-Up: Nixon and the Scandal of Watergate, now in its fourth edition.
We're just pigs!
06/27/2010, 06:05 PM
It is truly unfortunate that Dubya attacked Afghanistan because of the attack on New York. But the attack was known about and allowed to happen. I was hoping that Barrack Obama would be an improvement over
Dubya. But when he didn't arrest Dubya and his Unka Dicky for war crimes, I figured there would be no change. Gee, Duh.
The Department of Defense doesn't do nation building.
06/29/2010, 01:56 AM
They kill people. It's the Army and Marines for crying out loud, not the State Department or the Peace Corp.
But is winning the war, sorry, quelling the insurgency the goal or is it the transfer of the American treasury to the military industrial complex?
Two wars, 17 years total and one trillion dollars without a resolution to either theater.
With the world's largest military budget, the most technologically advanced, the most fire power in the history of the world and we have been fought to a stand still by mountain tribes with rifles and IED's. The Pentagon leadership is either inept or deviously stringing these two little war profiteering enterprises along.
Seems like the military industrial complex is calling the shots.