Michael Hastings: From Battlefield Reports to 'War Machine'

War reporter's 2012 book 'The Operators' has been adapted as new Brad Pitt Netflix film – but some of his best work was for Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone contributing editor Michael Hastings was one of the strongest voices reporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Credit: Paul Morigi/Getty

In 2013, when Michael Hastings died in a car accident at the age of 33, he'd already established himself as one of the best and most fearless journalists in America as a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, as well as a reporter for BuzzFeed and GQ. So it makes some sense that his books – like the memoir I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story, about his war-zone romance with Andi Parhamovich, the National Democratic Institute employee who was killed in Baghdad in 2007, and the semi-autobiographical novel The Last Magazine – sometimes tends to get lost in the conversation when talking about his work.

That will probably cease to be true with the release of the new film War Machine, starring Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton and Ben Kingsley, that starts streaming on Netflix on May 26th. Based off Hastings's 2012 book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan, it gives an shocking, unflinching look into the world of top-level American military advisors in a way no other reporter was ever able to portray.

But before the book, there was the reporting that made Hastings one of the most well-known names in journalism. Here's a look back at what came before The Operators, and some of the other vital reports Hastings filed for Rolling Stone.

The profile that brought down the commander
Hastings' 2010 George Polk Award-winning article that brought down Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the then-commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is a must – not only as a primer for War Story, but also a look at hubris at the highest level. McChrystal’s career, as Hastings writes in "The Runaway General," "should have been over at least two times," when the article was published.

Not long after it was published by Rolling Stone, McChrystal's was finally over, thanks to Hastings' story.

The Julian Assange interview
It's striking, in 2017, to go back and read Hastings' 2012 interview with the WikiLeaks founder. In "Julian Assange: The Rolling Stone Interview," we find Assange sitting on "a tattered couch, wearing a wool sweater, dark pants and an electronic manacle around his right ankle, visible only when he crosses his legs." As Hastings points out, Assange, under house arrest in his "hide-out deep in the English countryside," the world's most well-known hacktivist seems "more like an embattled rebel commander than a hacker or journalist."

What Assange tells Hastings might come off as paranoia by 2012 standards. But five years later, the interview feels as relevant as ever.

President Obama's "love of drones"
For all the talk of Obama's legacy as president, Hastings was one of the strongest voices to come out against the 44th commander-in-chief's use of drone warfare in the damning "The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret." As Hastings points out, "To Obama – a man famous for valuing both precision and restraint – drones represented a more targeted way of waging war, one with the potential to take out those guilty of conducting terrorism while limiting U.S. casualties." But as we see towards the end of the article, the drones, tragically, don't always end up taking out the right targets.

"My job in psy-ops is to play with people’s heads"
It's the stuff you’d expect to hear about in a film like The Manchurian Candidate: "The U.S. Army illegally ordered a team of soldiers specializing in "psychological operations" to manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war," Hastings wrote in 2011's "Another Runaway General: Army Deploys Psy-Ops on U.S. Senators."

Here, Hastings uncovers the shocking tale of Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, a three-star general in charge of training Afghan troops, and that unit of soldiers trained in psy-ops who were tasked, and resisted, orders to "manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war" when they visited Camp Eggers in Kabul.

The war that continues to define a generation
Hastings became one of the strongest voices documenting the horrors of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; conflicts under which an entire generation has now grown up. In "My Decade of bin Laden," Hastings looks at the death of the 9-11 mastermind, all the chaos he set off and what it was like to learn of his death. "I thought of all the dead, and what adding this fucker's name to the list actually means." He ends it on a positive note, "Perhaps, now that he is dead, we can use it in the cause of peace."