We’re an American Band

In Reviews on April 30, 2012 at 6:29 pm

by Michael Buozis

The American male, as a species, is in crisis.  At least in the realm of public life, the norms for masculine behavior in our society have deteriorated to such an extent that American men are now expected to act like frat boys for the rest of their lives.  You just wouldn’t be manly if you acted any other way.  This is the message we get from our popular publications, television and movies.  The wild bachelor party where a prostitute is accidentally (or purposefully) killed and her body must be hidden in the desert has become a comfortable trope of too many popular narratives.  Maxim and Esquire, even Men’s Journal, to say nothing of more overtly pornographic men’s magazines like Playboy and Penthouse have added a sheen of respectability to juvenile behavior.  They provide guides for how to dress for success and debauchery, rules for the etiquette of manliness, liquor and leather ads and a nice war story or two thrown in for political relevance.  Alcohol and women, tobacco and (depending on geography) firearms are not so much to be savored as part of a full life, but instead are the gadgets and gizmos of manhood to be consumed with abandon, in public, on camera.

There have always been American men who have acted this way, who have worshipped at the altar of drunkenness and violence.  But never before in history has it been so widely acceptable for a grown man to sit all day in his pajamas playing violent video games, illegally downloading meaningless television shows and movies, drinking cases of cheap, watery lager, to end the day drenched in cologne preying on women lonely enough to subject themselves to the bar scene.  Better yet, skip the bar and drive down to the strip.  All pleasures can be bought.  Maybe the problem is technology.  Maybe it’s a matter of magnification.  Entourage taught us the allure of the douche bag.  Jersey Shore reminded the world that we love a train wreck, and many young people are magnificent train wrecks.

Fortunately, most of us can avoid these people.  Change the channel.  Read better magazines.  Watch better movies.  Drink at finer bars.  Don’t drink at all.  God help you if you live in a college town.  Despite the prominence of the drunken frat boy in our popular imagination, it’s quite easy to keep such monsters at bay from one’s own social orbit.

“Hire more females.”

This was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s recommendation for what should be done if the Secret Service is found to have frequently behaved as they did in Cartagena, Colombia prior to President Obama’s arrival there for the recent Summit of the Americas.  Nine agents were found to have hired prostitutes and engaged in heavy drinking while preparing for their duties protecting Obama.  The incident was brought to the American embassy’s attention when a dispute over payment with one of the prostitutes caused a commotion at the Hotel Caribe.  The initial concern was about any compromise in President Obama’s safety, as angry pimps are known to act unreasonably when provoked.  The agent paid the prostitute, to settle things, but the ensuing attention from the media and the U.S. government has broadened into a discussion of appropriate behavior.  The agents technically did nothing illegal, as prostitution and heavy drinking are both perfectly legal in Colombia.  In fact, the only photographs I can find of the Hotel Caribe show prostitutes walking openly in front of its entrance.

This is to say nothing of the lavish recreational spending and untoward behavior of the General Services Administration.

I don’t want to sound like a prude, but there’s something disturbing in these reports.

I like my artists and musicians, poets and philosophers (even the stray physicist or mathematician) to have frequented his city’s red light district in his youth, but when our public servants act like giddy adolescents, whether on the people’s dime or off, I’m concerned less about moral deterioration and more about professional competency.

Michael Hastings, a freelance journalist known for his feature stories and profiles in the aforementioned men’s magazines, most prominently Rolling Stone, opens his new book The Operators, with the story of a public figure with a distinctly un-frat boy sensibility and narrative.  General David D. McKiernan, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan from the summer of 2008 to the summer of 2009 was forced to resign by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top players in the Pentagon and White House.  Though in practice McKiernan implemented many of the newly adopted counter-insurgency (COIN) measures put forth by superstar General David Petraeus and his civilian and military disciples, Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen were unimpressed with McKiernan’s cool-headedness in his initial briefings to them.  Sympathetic to President Obama, McKiernan refused to push the issue of a troop surge, one of the key elements of COIN, which requires a far larger force than the counter-terrorism doctrine endorsed by Vice President Joe Biden.  Remember, this is before the days of Leon Panetta and the increased profile of targeted drone attacks.  It seems ancient history, when we thought nation building in Afghanistan was a good idea, but then again Petraeus was the first celebrity four-star general in a generation and his word was gospel in the military and the hawkish circles of the government.

So Gates and Mullen replaced McKiernan, a traditional straight-laced Army type, as head of ISAF, with Stanley McChrystal, a Special Forces “A-team” veteran, brash and unapologetically gung-ho about the escalation of America’s war in Afghanistan.  Petraeus had leapfrogged over McChrystal in Iraq, so here was Stan’s chance to shine.

A string of laudatory puff-piece profiles followed in the national media and it looked, for a short time, as though McChrystal might fill the role in Afghanistan that Petraeus filled in Iraq, namely to turn the tide of domestic opinion about the conflict’s success around before the inevitable and anti-climactic denouement.

Enter the intrepid Rolling Stone reporter on assignment in Europe, covering McChrystal’s diplomatic visits to coalition members.

Hastings encounters a jingoistic culture in McChrystal’s staff, full of bullshitting and crudity, a far cry from the buttoned-up professionalism you’d expect.  McChrystal’s brood, which is made up of civilian and military press advisors, including a Brit named Duncan who used to work in hospitality, as well as advisors and other administrative staff, Chief of Staff Charlie Flynn and his brother Major General Michael T. Flynn, McChrystal’s intelligence man, are scarily casual around Hastings.  In Paris, one of them threatens to kill Hastings if his piece is not complementary to the general.  They speak disparagingly of Biden (“Bite me!”) the chief rival and detractor to the theory of COIN in Afghanistan.  The presence of alcohol in profusion at nearly every scene Hastings reports of the off-duty general and his staff is remarkable.  They stumble back to the Westminster Hotel and the next morning McChrystal worries that the group they share an elevator with will smell the beer on them.  While we don’t require our public servants to be teetotalers, this level of abandon, especially around a journalist is strikingly immature.  McChrystal hesitates in moments of candor with Hastings, but in the end, his will to be a rock star, an adrenaline- and testosterone-fueled rebel, beats out his better judgment.  After all, it is not McChrystal’s publically aired subterfuge of President Obama’s primacy as the Commander-in-Chief that gets him sacked in the summer of 2010, but the publication of Hastings’s article in Rolling Stone, replete with McChrystal’s brazen verbal defiance of his betters.

There is much more to Hastings’s book than a drunken pub crawl with a four star general.

Not only does Hastings expose the corruption of McKiernan’s ouster and McChrystal’s appointment, but he also shows the delicate balance between objective reporting and the dangers of embedded journalism.  Matthew Hoh, who quits, and Peter Galbraith, who is pushed out, show two different sides of resistance to futility and corruption in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan.

The Operators lacks any of the gravitas of violence and uncertainty in Michael Herr’s Dispatches, a 1977 exploration of the relationship between journalists and the military in the Vietnam War.  Hastings’s books is more of a political comedy of errors along the lines of 2009’s In the Loop, directed by Armando Ianucci, in which the power players, in the government, the diplomatic community and the military are all bumbling bureaucrats of the highest order.  The whole culture of the COINdinistas, based on the failed theories of the Vietnam War and David Galula’s experience in Algeria, is a perfect example of how the military doesn’t learn from history, only distorts it for its own agenda.

McChrystal’s viscerality is an advantage when relating to soldiers on the ground, even those who are disagreeing with his mission, as in the case of Israel Arroyo, a shell-shocked sergeant who writes McChrystal a heartrending letter about the loss of one of his men.  The adversarial politics of the military’s relationship with D.C. and the American public, as illustrated by General Caldwell’s information operations plan, is corrupt and unlawful but will never be prosecuted.

Hastings really hits his stride when writing about the adventure of war reportage and the give-and-take dynamic of the reporter-source/subject relationship.  In Kandahar, he is barraged by the exploding story of the publication of “The Runaway General” in Rolling Stone.  It’s much more interesting to read a Washington outsider’s view of the thought process of Robert Gates and the war machinery than it ever would be to hear the Sunday morning rants of the Beltway’s war pundits.  In the end, Petraeus represents something McChrystal could never achieve, the immunity of military power to judgment.

Still, the most important revelation here is that the general decay of American male culture, the arrested development, the inurement to violence, the endless drunken revelry, is enmeshed in all of society’s tiers, even the top military brass.

Discussed in this essay:

The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, by Michael Hastings. Blue Rider Press. 2012. 417 pages. $28.

Photo Credit:  Time


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