Media Analysis: “The Runaway General”

By Evan Sernoffsky

On Wednesday, June 23, 2010, President Barack Obama informed the people of the United States that he had accepted the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal, commander of all US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal was relieved from duty because of an article published in Rolling Stone Magazine that profiled the General and quoted him and his aides speaking disparagingly about the Commander-in-chief and other top government officials. Obama announced that General David Petraeus would take over McChrystal’s position in a  speech at the Rose Garden of the White House that afternoon. 

The night of Obama’s speech I was watching Larry King Live on CNN, and his guest that evening: Michael Hastings, author of “The Runaway General.” I was so intrigued by Hastings’ demeanor that I watched Larry King for the first time in its entirety. Hastings has dark hair, the early stages of a beard, and piercing blue eyes. That evening he wore a dark suit and sat with a somewhat uncomfortable looking erect posture. He spoke slowly and deliberately. This air of professionalism was not what I expected from a reporter for Rolling Stone, but then again I hadn’t read Rolling Stone since I was pretty young. The next day I couldn’t get the story or Hastings out of my head–I had to read the article. 

After I finished reading “The Runaway General” on Rolling Stone’s website, I found there was a lot more to the piece than just a few controversial remarks made by McChrystal. It was a profile of the general, a delineation of American foreign policy, and an expose on the inter-workings of the military’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. It was an inspiring read, and it was refreshing to see a piece of writing that has had an immediate and profound impact on our society. Overall, a damn fine piece of reporting. 

One of the most effective parts about Hastings style is his sequencing. He tells the story in a nonlinear fashion that gives his writing tension and depth. He also takes the time to give his story a background. The beginning of the article starts from when Hastings and McChrystal are first introduced at the Hotel Westminster in Paris. McChrystal speaks candidly about his feelings on how the war is being managed by Washington and problems with the administration. The article wastes no time in getting into the controversial quotes that led to McChrystal’s dismissal. After the opening scene and subsequent establishing paragraphs, Hastings gives a history of McChrystal’s military career starting from his birth. He then interweaves his profile of the General with the nuance of the political and military maneuvering that McChrystal deals with on a daily basis. The timeline that Hastings establishes is easy to follow even though it is not written in a “this is what happened next” formula. For an article of this length it takes a master of the craft to engage the reader. Hastings executes this with clinical precision. 

“The Runaway General” is a profile–at least that was the original intent of the article (what it later developed into was something all together different). Hastings is highly adept at capturing the personalities and characterizations of his subjects. Whether it is describing Afghan president Hamid Karzai, one of McChrystals aides or the General himself, Hastings appositions a portraiture of the character that makes the reader feel like they are in the room. When first introducing the former commander of Afghan forces Hastings writes, “If you fucked up or disappointed him, they can destroy your soul without the need for him to raise his voice.” (speaking about Stanley McChrystal’s slate-blue eyes). These small descriptions add to the development of the entire story and help the reader to understand the often-times complicated General. 

Michael Hastings is writing for the Rolling Stone audience. The demographic for this publication is different from other news sources, and Hastings shows his ability to connect with a young audience. When describing a scene where president Obama reprimands McChrystal Hastings writes, “The remarks earned him a smackdown from the president himself, who summoned the general to a terse private meeting aboard Air Force One.” Describing a scene involving the president and a top military commander with a wrestling metaphor takes a special kind of intellect. Hastings also never hesitates to use profanity–something that is always welcomed at Rolling Stone and dates back to the days of Hunter S. 

The amount of time that Hastings gave to “The Runaway General” must have been immense. It requires not just reporting, but research and informed opinion. He is able to tell the story of a war-gone-wrong through the eyes of the troops, the General and his aides, the president, and the American public. Hastings captivates his audience by using engaging storytelling to breakdown the nuts-and-bolts of what is really going on in Afghanistan. After hearing the president’s speech on Wednesday, I thought that I was going to read a slanderous report on General McChrystal. What I got was a representation of Afghanistan and American military policy in the Middle East that I had never considered. 

 You can read Michael Hastings’ report here: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/17390/119236 

About evan1983

Evan Sernoffsky is a freelance journalist in Sacramento, California.
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