Michael Hastings, the author and campaigning journalist for Rolling Stone magazine and for BuzzFeed, has died at the age of 33 following a car crash. His writing was characterised by a quest for the truth and for not holding back, regardless of the subject matter, the people involved or their status. He will be best remembered for his profile of General Stanley McChrystal, International Security Assistance Force commander in Afghanistan, which led to the subject’s resignation.
Hastings was born in Burlington, Vermont, the son of doctors Brent and Molly Hastings. He studied at Rice Memorial High School and New York University, from which he graduated in 2002. It was in June 2010 that Rolling Stone published his piece “The Runaway General”, on General Stanley McChrystal, the scoop which was to boost his own career while ending the career of an eminent soldier.
In an age of “embedded” war reporters, it is usual for the interaction between journalists and military leaders to be strictly controlled. However, during April that year, air transport to Afghanistan had been complicated by the volcanic eruptions in Iceland. Hastings found himself on a bus from Paris to Berlin with McChrystal and his entourage. The visit, which was supposed to take place over two days, turned into a month, during which time Hastings had considerable access to the general.
His candid and unguarded remarks, reported in Hastings’ article, included the line, “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?”, then, while laughing, “Who’s that?” Reacting to the piece and to McChrystal’s words, President Obama said that, “The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general… It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.”
The general found himself obliged to resign. Interviewed later, Hastings said, “I did not think General McChrystal would be fired. In fact, I thought his position was basically untouchable, I thought it would give them a headache for maybe 72 hours.” The piece went on to win a Polk Award and was nominated as a 2010 “Game Changer” by the Huffington Post.
In April 2012 he published “The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret”. This was one of the first mainstream articles in the US media to investigate the subject in depth. In this critical examination he observes that “…the implications of drones go far beyond a single combat unit or civilian agency. On a broader scale, the remote-control nature of unmanned missions enables politicians to wage war while claiming we’re not at war – as the United States is currently doing in Pakistan.”
Aside from his journalism, he wrote a number of books about US foreign policy and his own experiences as a war correspondent. His debut, I Lost My Love in Baghdad, which told the story of the death in that troubled city of his girlfriend Andi Parhamovich, who was working for the National Democratic Institute, which provides training and material to political parties and the media in fragile democracies. was published in 2008. Publisher’s Weekly said of it: “Like Mariane Pearl’s A Mighty Heart, this is a tragic love story with broad appeal married to an unflinching account of wartime violence and brutality; as such, it should do even more than that bestseller to fill in a general audience on the dire state of Iraq.”
In The Operators (2012) Hastings provides a more detailed account of the time spent travelling with General McChrystal. That book has gone on to become a New York Times bestseller. His last work was Panic 2012: The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama’s Final Campaign, which covers the anxious campaigning activity leading up to the most recent presidential election.
His colleague Matt Farwell said of him, “As a journalist, he specialised in speaking truth to power and laying it all out there. He was irascible in his reporting and sometimes/often/always infuriating in his writing: he lit a bright lamp for those who wanted to follow his example.”
Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Dana, said, “Great reporters exude a certain kind of electricity, the sense that there are stories burning inside them, and that there’s no higher calling or greater way to live life than to be always relentlessly trying to find and tell those stories. I’m sad that I’ll never get to publish all the great stories that he was going to write, and sad that he won’t be stopping by my office for any more short visits which would stretch for two or three completely engrossing hours. He will be missed.”
Michael Hastings, author and journalist; born Burlington, Vermont 28 January 1980; married 2011 Elise Jordan; died Los Angeles 18 June 2013.