The Way of the Warrior: Media Coverage of Gen. McChrystal

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On May 12, 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates selected Gen. Stanley McChrystal to head our “Af-Pak” military operations. Though the selection was widely praised, two unsettling issues have dogged McChrystal’s ascent to the top of the military hierarchy. First, he participated in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s mysterious “friendly-fire” death in Afghanistan. Second, as reported by Esquire (here, here, and here), he oversaw units in Iraq that violated the Geneva Conventions by employing enhanced interrogation techniques on prisoners and by refusing to allow the Red Cross access to them. The conduct at Camp Nama (“Nasty Ass Military Area”), where McChrystal’s Task Force 121 was based, was supposedly so brutal that the CIA ordered its agents to steer clear of it.

It was a point of pride that the Red Cross would never be allowed in the door, Jeff [an unnamed former military interrogator] says. This is important because it defied the Geneva Conventions, which require that the Red Cross have access to military prisons. “Once, somebody brought it up with the colonel. ‘Will they ever be allowed in here?’ And he said absolutely not. He had this directly from General McChrystal and the Pentagon that there’s no way that the Red Cross could get in — they won’t have access and they never will. This facility was completely closed off to anybody investigating, even Army investigators.”

Given Task Force 121’s history, that was a remarkable promise. Formed in the summer of 2003, it quickly became notorious. By August the CIA had already ordered its officers to avoid Camp Nama. Then two Iraqi men died following encounters with Navy Seals from Task Force 121 — one at Abu Ghraib and one in Mosul — and an official investigation by a retired Army colonel named Stuart Herrington, first reported in The Washington Post, found evidence of widespread beatings. “Everyone knows about it,” one Task Force officer told Herrington. Six months later, two FBI agents raised concerns about suspicious burn marks and other signs of harsh treatment. Then the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that his men had seen evidence of prisoners with burn marks and bruises and once saw a Task Force member “punch [the] prisoner in the face to the point the individual needed medical attention.”

In light of these allegations (putting aside any further worries we may have about the use of clandestine hit squads in war), how have our top newspapers handled McChrystal’s appointment?

The New York Times assigned Mark Mazzetti and Elisabeth Bumiller (she of White House [Love] Letter fame) to write a profile. The piece informed readers that McChrystal is an ascetic who eats only one meal a day and restricts himself to a couple hours of sleep nightly—hallmarks of the great military generals of ancient Greece and Rome. He’s also a “warrior-scholar,” loves to jog long distances, and has “no body fat.”

As for McChrystal’s actual work in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bumiller and Mazzetti were content to yield to military secrecy, despite ample reporting by Esquire and other news outlets:

Most of what General McChrystal has done over a 33-year career remains classified, including service between 2003 and 2008 as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, an elite unit so clandestine that the Pentagon for years refused to acknowledge its existence. . . .

When General McChrystal took over the Joint Special Operations Command in 2003, he inherited an insular, shadowy commando force with a reputation for spurning partnerships with other military and intelligence organizations. But over the next five years he worked hard, his colleagues say, to build close relationships with the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. He won praise from C.I.A. officers, many of whom had stormy relationships with commanders running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

”He knows intelligence, he knows covert action and he knows the value of partnerships,” said Henry Crumpton, who ran the C.I.A.’s covert war in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.

This tale, of course, runs counter to Esquire‘s reporting, according to which Iraq’s Camp Nama was too much even for the CIA. You might think that discrepancy would be worth pursuing. But the Times thought the ascetic warrior-scholar angle to McChrystal’s story was so profound that they assigned a follow-up by James Dao entitled “No Food for Thought: The Way of the Warrior.”

To Bumiller and Mazzetti’s credit, they did mention McChrystal’s role in the Tillman cover up. But they left the war-crimes allegation to the editorial page, where it received an obscure one-sentence reference:

Less impressively, some of his commando units were implicated in abusive interrogations of Iraqi prisoners.

As for the Washington Post, its May 13 profile of McChrystal, written by Ann Scott Tyson, was more balanced and straightforward. It raises the obvious question whether McChrystal, a special-ops assassination guy, is the best choice for the job:

“McChrystal kills people. Has he ever worked in the counterinsurgency environment? Not really,” said Roger Carstens, a senior nonresident fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former Special Forces officer.

“People will ask, what message are we sending when our high-value-target hunter is sent to lead in Afghanistan?” said a senior military officer at the Pentagon, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

But as for the war-crimes and Tillman allegations, the Post reduced them to one opaque paragraph:

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tapped McChrystal to become director of the Joint Staff last year. McChrystal’s confirmation in that post was delayed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, some members of which voiced concern about his oversight of detention facilities where abuses occurred. The committee also looked into McChrystal’s role in the Army’s handling of the friendly-fire death of Ranger Cpl. Pat Tillman in Afghanistan.

It’s clear from Esquire‘s reporting that there are important questions that need to be asked about Gen. McChrystal. Will our top newspapers bother to pursue them?

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