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Journalist Surprised By Reaction To His Profile Of Gen. Stanley McChrystal

Journalist Michael Hastings told NPR that he is surprised that "The Runaway General," his Rolling Stone profile of the top American commander in Afghanistan, led Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to recall Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

In an interview with NPR's Michele Norris, Hastings said he remembered being shocked by the general's candor and outspokenness during interviews, but he did not anticipate his article would cause the hullabaloo it has.

Hastings said that, while he could only speculate about what motivated McChrystal and his aides to say what they did, he guessed that they might have wanted "to throw a hand grenade into the pond and create some shockwaves," to get more people to pay attention to the war in Afghanistan.

"Perhaps they just created bigger shockwaves than they're accustomed to," Hastings said.

Earlier today, Gates said McChrystal "made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment."  He and the president are scheduled to meet with McChrystal at the White House on Wednesday.

Hastings flew to Paris in April, planning to spend two days with the general and his staff.  When the Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, their plans changed.  He traveled with McChrystal to Berlin, Kabul, Kandahar, and Washington, and along the way, Hastings was privy to frank conversations, contemptuous comments, and bawdy jokes.

Before he embarked on the reporting trip, Hastings did not agree on any ground rules, and he claimed he carried a notebook and a tape recorder at all times.

He said that, although some of his subjects -- including McChrystal -- were drinking, or had been drinking, when he spoke with them, the comments that have attracted the most controversy were not made under the influence of alcohol.

Perhaps more than anything else, the profile underscores how ragged the relationship between civilians and the military in Afghanistan has become. According to Hastings, comments by McChrystal and his staff express feelings that, in his estimation, "are very real and very valid."

"I think it's fairly clear Gen. McChrystal, who spent his life in the military, doesn't have a feel for, or understanding of, the use of civilians," he said.  "McChrystal puts his life on the line. He is willing to put his life on the line in a way that civilians don't really understand, or can't appreciate."

According to Hastings, McChrystal, a West Point graduate who previously headed the Joint Special Operations Command, has a steely resolve and a ready willingness to shoot from the hip.

"He has a high tolerance for assuming a great amount of risk," Hastings told NPR's Michelle Norris.  "That also translates into how you make policy.  It translates into your personal life.  It translates into how you deal with journalists."

You want guys like McChrystal killing people on your behalf, and fighting your   wars.  You just don't want them, I think, commanding the policy, which is what they've done.

Essentially, President Obama has lost control of the war in Afghanistan.  He lost control of the war early on.  And he is just following the lead of Gen. McChrystal, and I don't know if that's the role McChrystal should have.

Hastings said McChrystal was disappointed by his relationship with President Obama, even as he has enjoyed the support of many people in the Pentagon and the Special Forces community.

"I think he wants to have a one-on-one, eye-to-eyeball relationship with the president that he doesn't feel he has," he said, adding that McChrystal seemed envious of how well President Bush and David Petraeus got along with each other.

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David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.