When Michael Hastings was killed in a single-car crash in Los Angeles at age 33 last June, journalism lost a rare specimen of the breed it needs most: a reporter who doesn’t care whom he pisses off. Hastings was the hothead whose 2010 Rolling Stone article “The Runaway General” led to the dismissal of the Afghanistan commander, General Stanley McChrystal, for the infraction of trash-talking his civilian bosses. Hastings, too, was pilloried after the piece—by his own journalistic peers, in a manner that would prefigure some of the profession’s more recent hostility toward Glenn Greenwald. “Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has,” said Lara Logan of CBS News.
We now know that Hastings served both his country and profession with more honor than Logan, who later maimed her own career and 60 Minutes by perpetrating a Benghazi hoax. And his service isn’t done yet. After Hastings died, a former colleague at Newsweek, where he worked as an intern and war correspondent from 2002 to 2008, sent his widow, Elise Jordan, the draft of a novel he had finished just before his 2010 embed with McChrystal. Titled The Last Magazine, it is being published this month on the anniversary of his passing.
We’ll never know how Hastings might have revised this scrappy debut effort or whether it would have led to a career as a novelist. But as a provocative piece of thinly fictionalized nonfiction, it’s a posthumous mission accomplished. The Last Magazine—set at a fictional newsweekly called The Magazine that might as well go by Newsweek—tells the story of the run-up to the Iraq War from a perspective that many of his colleagues would like to forget or suppress: as an embed deep inside the so-called liberal media, much of which cheered on the war with a self-righteous gravity second only to Dick Cheney’s. Hastings’s book is a message in a bottle that has belatedly washed up on shore to force us to remember how we landed where we are now.
Where are we, exactly? As President Obama implicitly reconfirmed in last week’s West Point address calling for a restrained American role abroad, the massive blunder of Iraq remains the nation’s inescapable existential burden two and a half years after our last troops departed. Indeed, the war continues to pile up collateral damage and defeats daily. Without America’s wrong turn into Iraq, perhaps the Taliban would be extinct rather than resurgent in Afghanistan as we head for the exits to meet Obama’s new 2016 pullout deadline. Without the taint of the Iraq debacle, a war deceitfully carried out in the name of 9/11, perhaps ticket sales at the new 9/11 museum would not be moving so slowly that one can imagine them ending up at the half-price booth; perhaps even George W. Bush might have dared to show up for the museum’s opening rather than plead a “scheduling conflict.”
As for Iraq itself, the just-completed election (few photos of purple fingers this time) all but guaranteed a third term for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a mercurial autocrat like the other leaders America sponsored after 9/11, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf. Under Maliki, Iraq is an ally of Iran, its partner in supporting the criminal Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. And though Iraq was not a terrorist stronghold when “shock and awe” toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, it is today. The Anbar-province city of Fallujah, liberated by American forces in our country’s bloodiest warfare since Vietnam, fell to Al Qaeda earlier this year. As Mark Danner summarized in his ongoing assessment of the war’s origins and legacy for The New York Review of Books, “The Sunni-Shia struggle set in motion by the American invasion of Iraq has become the vortex of a violent political struggle that stretches from South Asia to the Gulf.” Iraq itself has become a one-stop-shopping jihadist laboratory for car bombs, IEDs, and kidnapping scenarios like the one enacted by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Iraq’s legacy in America goes well beyond the steep toll of casualties, injuries, and billions wasted on corruption and folly. Of the 2.6 million Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than half have physical or mental-health problems and give the government low marks for meeting their needs, according to a Washington Post–Kaiser Family Foundation survey published in March. Barely a third of the public—and only 44 percent of post-9/11 service members—believes the Iraq War was worth fighting, according to CBS News and Post-Kaiser polls. Such is the bipartisan backlash to both post-9/11 wars that a Pew survey last fall found that 52 percent of Americans want their country to “mind its own business internationally”—a record high in the poll’s five-decade history.