While it may not spark a revolution in newsrooms, Michael Hastings’ narrative profile of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal in this week’s Rolling Stone has already made history. “The Runaway General,” which depicts the general and his aides mocking nearly everyone associated with the White House and U.S. diplomacy efforts in Afghanistan, led to McChrystal being called to meet with President Obama earlier today. And while it’s not quite a Douglas MacArthur moment, Hastings’ reporting on McChrystal’s own words has cost the general his job.
Some critics have taken issue with Hastings’ politics, suggesting his agenda tainted the piece. But stepping back from the question of politics to look at the mechanics of Hastings’ profile, it’s easy to see that its power comes from the fact that it’s a story.
Because of the air flights disrupted by the Eyjafjallajokull volcano this spring, Hastings’ two-day trip with the General and his aides turned into several weeks of travel (as he explained yesterday to Newsweek‘s Andrew Bast). Hastings’ story takes readers along for the ride to Paris, Berlin, Kabul, Kandahar and Washington, DC, watching the men get drunk, work hard and admit to deep problems with the results of their counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan—even as they suggest they might still be able to make the case for expanding the U.S. effort.
Hastings’ inclusion of the repartee between the men paints a picture of McChrystal’s sense of himself and his role much more acutely than could be done in a non-narrative piece.
“I’d rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner,” McChrystal says.
He pauses a beat.
“Unfortunately,” he adds, “no one in this room could do it.”
With that, he’s out the door.
“Who’s he going to dinner with?” I ask one of his aides.
“Some French minister,” the aide tells me. “It’s fucking gay.”
In addition to the locker-room-style insults, however, Hastings offers more profound conversations, including an extended back-and-forth between McChrystal and a group of soldiers in which one staff sergeant tells the general that some of the men believe the U.S. is losing. McChrystal defends his strategy but, Hastings suggests, does not convince the men.
If one or two quotes criticizing the White House had come out in the middle of a traditional news story, it’s hard to imagine the article would have gotten so much attention. The humorous insults—particularly where one aide calls Vice-President Biden “Bite Me”—have been quoted widely. But Hastings pulls together a lot of sources, from McChrystal’s wife to a retired colonel who attended West Point with McChrystal. McChrystal’s own chief of operations is on the record describing the likely outcome in Afghanistan:
“It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,” says Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, who serves as chief of operations for McChrystal. “This is going to end in an argument.”
Having a month with the general and his aides seems to have allowed Hastings to write an assertive story in a confident voice. Even though Hastings is largely absent as a character, we feel his presence as he writes about Afghan leader Hamid Karzai’s shaky credibility: “This is one of the central flaws with McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy.”
While not every narrative piece is going to change the course of a war, Hastings’ story is a good lesson on the ways in-depth reporting in a storytelling format can bring immediacy, urgency and vital information to readers. With the right material, having time and space to tell a story can make a difference.
[For more of Michael Hastings’ work, see Business Insider‘s listing of “10 Great Stories Michael Hastings Wrote before He Brought Down Gen. Stanley McChrystal.” And check out Nieman Lab’s look at how Rolling Stone dropped the ball in terms of hosting the online conversation about the story.]