Remembering an admired colleague, gone too soon
There's a scene from Michael Hastings' first book, I Lost My Love in Baghdad, where he describes being at a school assembly in his hometown of Malone, New York. He was in the fifth grade and his school ("a very small Catholic school in a very small town") had brought in a returning veteran to describe his experiences in the first Iraq war. Michael put it this way:
We listened to a returning veteran who couldn't have been older than twenty. I raised my hand and asked him: Did you carry an M-16, and does an M-16 have automatic and semiautomatic fire? And if so, is there a switch on the gun? (Yes, it was both, and there is a switch). He described trying to dig a foxhole in the desert, and how he went on a mission for two days, observing the enemy from a distance.
I was riveted. It was like being in the presence of a celebrity . . .
I remember reading this years ago and thinking how very much it reminded me of a famous scene from Serpico, where the now-grown ace policeman describes being a boy watching the cops show up at a crime scene:
All of a sudden the crowd just parted, like the Red Sea, you see? And there were these guys in blue, and I said, 'They know.' What do they know? What do they know?
I didn't know Michael Hastings very well, but one thing about him was always obvious – he was born to be in the news business, he loved it, he was made for it. He wrote about Iraq and Afghanistan as places he had always been destined to visit. By that I mean not those countries particularly, but those places as global hot spots, the trouble zones, the places where the news happened. "I am finally here," is how he described reaching Baghdad, and that was the lead-in to the school assembly story. Most people would describe Baghdad as a place one finally leaves. But Hastings, his whole life, he wanted to go to those places, he ached to do this job. He wanted to be one of those people who "knew."
I repeat that I didn't know him all that well, and I say this even though I've read his excellent books. Michael was refreshingly old-school in an Internet age when everybody overindulges in premature autobiography. He was all reporter. His mantra was "a fact in every sentence" and he once humorously admonished young journalists to never even talk to editors about "prose" or wanting to be a "writer" (he typed that word like an evidence tech holding a piece of decomposing brain with a rubber glove). For him it was all about getting the story, and at the terribly young age of 33 he was obviously already a master at that.
Most people know him from the story he wrote about General McChrystal, for his big scoops – a pure reporter measures his or herself by scoops, and Michael had some huge ones. But the wonderful thing about his work was his promiscuous fascination with facts of all kinds, news-cycle-shaking or not. He swallowed up extraneous details of all varieties and that fleshed out his books and stories, making the narratives three-dimensional, authoritative and believable, just the way they're supposed to be.
His particular specialty was quickly adopting the local jargon, mastering the social geography of a new place, what things were called, where key people hung out. His books are full of these joyously-reported little insider details, like the fact that mercenary firms in Iraq like Blackwater and Triple Canopy were nicknamed "Bongwater and Triple Comedy," or that an old British fort behind a soccer stadium in Kabul was the place for clandestine meetings, "spook central," as he explained in The Operators.
What people don't realize about the kinds of books Michael wrote is that they're like novels, except that novelists get to invent every prop in every scene; Michael had to learn every single one of these little details either from personal experience or from a source, and I don't recall ever hearing that he got any of them wrong.
I don't know how he got the sources he did, except to say that in person he seemed immensely likeable, enthusiastic, smart; his books also show him to be a little bit of a chameleon, seamlessly speaking in the acronym-laden jargon of FOB America, the archipelago of military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan where he made his career. Reading his dialogues from airports and convoys and hotel lounges, you can see him subtly adjusting his tone or his opinions depending on the situation, sometimes to fit in better, sometimes to challenge people to shake something loose. "Being a contrarian, I argued with my antiwar colleagues," he wrote about the Iraq war in I Lost My Love, "taking on the neoconservative talking points just to see how they felt . . ."
The few times I did meet Michael came in the wake of his sudden celebrity after the McChrystal story broke, and I remember being very surprised at how calmly he was taking it all, how unimpressed he was by – well, by himself, I guess. He may have been preparing since the fifth grade for the fame that comes with big scoops as well, for all I knew, but that didn't really seem like the explanation. It seemed more to me that he was just fascinated by what he'd learned on the job, and talking about it on TV was just a natural thing to him. He was just into it.
He wasn't even old enough yet to know how young he still was, if that makes any sense. Not long ago, he said that you have to act like reporting is "more important to you than anything else in your life – family, friends, social life, whatever." That's one of those things you say when you're young, but it's an idea that turns out to be a pleasure to outgrow. It's a cruel thing that he may have missed the chance to find that out. But not many other things got by him. He was really that good. We will all miss him.