Saturday, June 26, 2010

Like a ROLLING STONE (article, that is)

Presumably Rolling Stone was conceived as a magazine for the changing entertainment scene of the Sixties. Because this was a time when many of the entertainers were highly politicized, one might almost say that it fell into reporting and commenting on world affairs through "accidental circumstances" (as in the coroner's verdict at Peter Grimes' hearing). Nevertheless, there has been nothing "accidental" about how it has handled this unanticipated responsibility, which is why people like myself, who could care less about their entertainment reporting, track the dispatches of Rolling Stone news reporters.

The seriousness of Rolling Stone received particular endorsement when David Simon created his HBO series Generation Kill, based on a book of the same name by Evan Wright, the Rolling Stone reporter embedded in the First Recon Battalion of the Marines in the period leading up to and including the invasion of Baghdad in 2003. One has only to sample Wright's book or follow Simon's dialogue for a single scene to appreciate both the language and its context in Michael Hastings' "Runaway General" article. Thus, while I have already endorsed Matt Taibbi's diagnosis of the repercussions of this article in the context of political journalism, when it came to understanding the military context, only National Public Radio came up with a source whom (thanks to Wright) I could respect. That source was Nathaniel Fick, currently Chief Executive Officer of the Center for a New American Security. More important, however, is that, at the time of Wright's embedding, Fick was First Lieutenant in Platoon 2 of First Recon's Bravo Company; and Wright spent most of his time with Team 1 Alpha in that platoon. Fick could thus speak on National Public Radio with direct experience of having an embedded reporter in his presence. Along with the Center's Senior Fellow Tom Ricks, Fick provided a much-needed reality check about the sorts of things that happen when journalists encounter military personnel of any rank when they are under fire, whether that fire is coming literally from hostiles in Afghanistan or figuratively from NATO allies questioning our underlying strategy (the opening "scene" in Hastings' article).

The bottom line is that one cannot really grasp what goes on in battle conditions without establishing an extensive context. This is why Simon committed himself to seven one-hour episodes in order to provide an acceptable account of Wright's book. Thus, when I read Lyse Doucet's From Our Own Correspondent piece for BBC News, I found myself wondering how much of that context had been on her radar. For that matter I could not quite figure out her motive for writing the piece. Was she trying to "humanize" General Stanley McChrystal in the wake of the punishing week he had endured? If so, then I also have to wonder if she had given Hastings' report a serious reading (or if she had read it at all).

For my part I am still trying to draw my own conclusions about McChrystal. Clearly (to those who read me regularly), my own reading has less to do with whether or not McChrystal should have been relieved of duty and more to do with why we are still in Afghanistan at all. From that point of view, I do not think that McChrystal needs the sort of "redemption" that Doucet was trying to provide. Like Fick he understood the implications of having an embedded journalist in one's presence. For all I know he also recognized that his current situation was untenable and in need of radical change, in which case he may well have deliberately used Hastings as his "change agent." In other words he had come to a stage in his life whose only priority was getting himself out of Afghanistan, and Hastings provided him with an effective means of achieving that goal. Whether or not this proposition is cynical will probably depend on your political bias; but I would argue that, whatever its rhetorical dispositions may be, it stands as a realistic hypothesis.

No comments: