McChrystal: Death Squad Poster Boy

The sacking of the head of NATO’s military command in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, caused a surge in coverage of the man described by political analyst James Petras as “Cheney’s chief assassin”.

In May 2009, Petras sampled from McChrystal’s CV. The general had played a central role in directing units involved in “extrajudicial assassinations, systematic torture, bombing of civilian communities and search and destroy missions”. He was “the very embodiment of the brutality and gore that accompanies military-driven empire building”.

Between September 2003 and August 2008, McChrystal commanded the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations (JSOC), tasked to set up death squads and paramilitary forces to terrorise communities and movements opposing the US and its allies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. JSOC’s Major General William Mayville described the operation in Iraq: “JSOC was a killing machine.”

JSOC has also been described as “the Salvadoran option” after the US-created death squads that brutalised El Salvador in the 1980s. (Ibid.) McChrystal was in charge of the “direct action” forces of the Special Missions Units. Petras explained:

‘Direct Action’ operatives are the death-squads and torturers, and their only engagement with the local population is to terrorize, and not to propagandize. They engage in ‘propaganda of the dead’, assassinating local leaders to ‘teach’ the locals to obey and submit to the occupation.

The investigative reporter Gareth Porter noted that McChrystal’s May 2008 nomination to become director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon had been delayed for months while the Senate Armed Services Committee investigated “a pattern of abuse of detainees by military personnel under his command. Sixty-four service personnel assigned or attached to Special Operations units were disciplined for detainee abuse between early 2004 and the end of 2007”.

W. Patrick Lang, formerly US defence intelligence officer for the Middle East, suggested that the McChrystal nomination sounded “like a paradigm shift in which Obama’s policy of destroying the leadership of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan takes priority over everything else”. Affirming again, as Alexander Cockburn observed, that McChrystal’s expertise was “in assassination and ‘decapitation’”.

Tough Job

In the last two years, McChrystal has been mentioned in 1,929 articles in the UK press (LexisNexis, July 1, 2010). We found no articles that mentioned the term “death squad” in relation to McChrystal’s career.

Instead, Simon Tisdall wrote in the Guardian that McChrystal was “an able general, a special forces guru at his best when up against a wall”.

A Guardian leader described him merely as “a talented but maverick soldier”.

A Times leader commented:

“Rolling Stone’s profile leaves the reader profoundly grateful that there are men of the calibre of General McChrystal present in the front line of a war that affects us all. Let us not pretend otherwise: it is a blow that he has gone.” ((Leading article, ‘General Failure,’ The Times, June 24, 2010.))

In a BBC Radio 4 report, Lyse Doucet talked of “the tough commander of the US war effort in Afghanistan”. Doucet began by recalling McChrystal’s unusually sombre arrival at an earlier interview: “He was usually so quick to smile and talk,” she observed:

“I knew he had just come from the presidential palace. Questions raced through my mind.

“Had something gone wrong again with President Karzai? Or on the battlefield?

“To break the silence, I simply said: ‘Tough job.’

“‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘I just heard my college room-mate died. He’s been ill.’

“‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Would you like more time?’

“‘No,’ the general insisted, visibly tightening his jaw and sitting up straight. ‘This is my job.’

“And the general focused. That was Gen McChrystal in the field, in his element, in command.”

The last sentence was closer to Mills & Boon than serious journalism. Any number of facts and figures can be cited from media database searches to indicate media bias, but it is much more difficult to measure biased +tone+ of this kind. The look of cold outrage when journalists report the crimes of ‘the enemy’. The undertone of tragic irony when they describe US-UK ‘mistakes’ in slaughtering civilians – the irony being that good people have to do bad things to achieve good results. The open displays of affection and deference when the likes of Barack Obama and David Cameron are interviewed. In a recent interview with Hugo Chavez, the BBC’s Stephen Sackur, brow permanently creased with scepticism and disdain, asked:

“Is it possible to have genuine democracy and genuine respect for the rule of law within your socialism?” ((Hardtalk, BBC News Channel, June 18, 2010.))

Imagine Sackur asking Obama: “Is it possible to have genuine democracy and genuine respect for the rule of law within your capitalism?”

As we described earlier this year, under McChrystal’s command, American-led troops dragged Afghan children from their beds and shot them during a night raid in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan on December 27, 2009. Ten people were killed, including eight schoolboys from one family. (See our media alerts: Were “Afghan Children Executed by US-led Forces?” and “Nato’s Fire Sale: One Dead Afghan Child, $2,000.”

In The Times, Jerome Starkey reported the testimony of Mohammed Taleb Abdul Ajan, father of three of the boys killed:

When I entered their room I saw four people lying in a heap. I shook them and shouted their names but they didn’t respond. Some of them were shot in the head. Some of them were shot in the chest.

I was praying that in the next room maybe they were still alive but when I went in I saw everyone was dead. I saw blood on their necks. I became crazy. I don’t remember what I felt. ((Jerome Starkey, ‘Assault force killed family by mistake in raid, claims Afghan father,’ The Times, February 25, 2010.))

Can we imagine a BBC journalist opening with Doucet-style empathy a report on a senior Hamas or Taliban leader responsible for this kind of atrocity?

McChrystal is, Doucet went on, a “soldier’s soldier”: “No-one talked much about what had really gone on when he headed what is called the most secretive force in the US military, the Special Operations unit hunting al-Qaeda militants in Iraq.”

Nor did Doucet — this was her only reference to Special Operations in the broadcast. She added: “I once joked with Gen Petraeus that he had to spend more time in Afghanistan because he was being outdone in the image stakes by the other hard-charging general.”

Doucet described Petraeus and McChrystal as “poster boys for a new way of fighting wars”. Alexander Cockburn commented on McChrystal:

Actually there’s nothing fresh or sophisticated in what he did. Programs of targeted assassination aren’t new in counter-insurgency. The most infamous and best known was the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, designed to identify and eliminate cadres of Vietnam’s ‘National Liberation Front’… of whom, on some estimates, at least 40,000 were duly assassinated.

Doucet claimed McChrystal had contributed his “personal stamp”, emphasising “the need to avoid civilian casualties, to protect the population”. Indeed, Doucet was tireless in listing McChrystal’s virtues, which were the stuff of legend, with “much myth-making around the gaunt commander who slept four hours a night, ate one meal a day, and removed cushions from office chairs so visitors would not stay too long”.

This is a theme in BBC reporting. In the October 4 edition of the Mail on Sunday, Justin Webb, a presenter of the BBC’s Today programme, wrote:

“Stanley McChrystal is a character. In some respects he straight is out of central casting: big, with fierce eyes and weather-beaten skin. He looks every bit as fit as a Hollywood version of a special forces soldier. Yet he eats only one meal a day.”

The title of Webb’s piece described McChrystal as “my pal Stan”.

Doucet noted that McChrystal is also a skilled diplomat: “Gen McChrystal was praised as the man who knew how to deal with a difficult ally [Karzai], unlike almost everyone else on Obama’s Afghan team.”

The conclusion of her report echoed her introduction: “I walked with him to the door of his office. When we parted, I said: ‘I’m sorry about your college friend.’ ‘No, it’s OK,’ he replied brusquely, ‘I should not have said it.’”

Unlikely Babe Magnets

Doucet’s sympathetic approach humanised a general at the heart of some of the most brutal and devastating wars of modern times. Iraq has been all but destroyed by the US-UK invasion and occupation. The devastation in Afghanistan goes almost completely unreported, but must be enormous. We are not suggesting that McChrystal is a bad or evil man who should not be afforded compassion. The point is that he is a deeply controversial figure responsible for the killing of enormous numbers of people. Attention should be drawn to the controversial and bloody nature of his activities, as would happen as a matter of course if he was one of ‘the bad guys’. Questions should be asked and answered about the death squads, about the allegations of torture, about the tsunami of civilian casualties.

Even more fundamentally, Doucet could have raised serious, thoughtful questions about the self-defeating nature of the war in Afghanistan. Consider this view expressed in the Middle East Journal:

“Delicate social and political problems cannot be bombed or ‘missiled’ out of existence… Violence can be likened to a virus; the more you bombard it, the more it spreads.” ((James Bill and Rebecca Bill Chavez, Middle East Journal, Autumn 2002.))

Or consider this obvious common sense from Professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas, then of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in January 2002:

If anyone thinks that this temporary degradation of al-Qaeda’s capabilities through the elimination of terrorist training camps in Afghanistan somehow or other will reduce the risks of terrorist attacks in the future, I’m afraid they’re wrong. Because terrorist training camps don’t have to be in Afghanistan, they can be anywhere. And indeed the temptation now for al-Qaeda will be to site the training of its operatives in Western Europe, Canada and even in the United States. ((Bulmer-Thomas, Jonathan Dimbleby programme, ITV, January 27, 2002.))

Or Doucet could have considered the argument that the war in Afghanistan is really a civil war — that NATO is primarily waging war on Pashtun tribes, not the Taliban.

It is not the job of serious journalism to fall at the feet of power, but British and American journalists habitually do just that. ABC Pentagon correspondent Martha Raddatz wrote of General David Petraeus:

“A warrior and a scholar, Petraeus is sometimes jokingly referred to as a water walker, since almost everything he touches seems to turn to gold.”

The US media watch site Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has collected comments referring to former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld:

“Sixty-nine years old, and you’re America’s stud,” Tim Russert told Rumsfeld when he interviewed him on NBC’s Meet the Press; on CNN Larry King informed him that “you now have this new image called sex symbol”. Fox News’ Jim Angle called him “a babe magnet for the 70-year-old set.”

“I love you, Donald,” Margaret Carlson announced on CNN’s Capital Gang. Carlson’s Time magazine colleague, Mark Thompson, told the Chicago Tribune, “Although he has not told us very much, he has been like a father figure.”

Once again, we recall historian Walter Karp’s observation:

“It is a bitter irony of source journalism that the most esteemed journalists are precisely the most servile. For it is by making themselves useful to the powerful that they gain access to the ‘best’ sources.” ((Quoted Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.199.))

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on July 1st, 2010 at 9:10am #

    I would be slightly less sceptical of these people if their idea of “fair” journalism wasn’t so one-sided. They seem to reason backwards. Certain points of view are deemed “good” for no obvious rational reason and anything that disagrees with those points of view is deemed “bad” journalism. That sounds more like censors than media watchdogs to me! Equally, they don’t deal with the internet. There again, there is the same “a priori deeming”. The internet is given a free ride. Essentially, the authors seem to regard anything they disagree with as “bad journalism”. That is legitimate comment, but is most definitely not watchdoging!

  2. bozh said on July 1st, 2010 at 9:22am #

    It is much, too much, of a prevalent dictum in privately-owned ‘media’ [read please lying] to do much or solely individual praise or blame.
    In short, when in any doubt ab what not to say, just list real and invented traits of the person.
    In short, always personalize a war, oil gush, death squads, poverty, warcare, etc.
    And if u write a letter to privately-paid editors pointing this out, it is not gonna be published becuase the lyiars must be protected.
    I have stopped to privately-owned pols and editors long time ago.
    ‘Media’ owners and US needs lyars more than tanks or CIA. tnx

  3. mary said on July 2nd, 2010 at 3:51am #

    One of the responses , with which I concur but could not have said so well, to the Medialens alert.

    It is addressed to Lyse Doucet who produced the cringemaking ‘interview’ with McChrystal detailed above. I guess that she will not reply.

    July 2, 2010.

    Thanks, Eds, a superb expose of servile, novella journalism.


    Dear Lyse Doucet

    I read with close interest some of your exchanges with General McChrystal and observations on his conduct in heading NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan.

    This came courtesy of the latest Media Lens Alert, which raises rather important questions about the selective praise and empathy offered in your reports for someone with a documented record of violent military abuse.

    I wonder if you’d care to comment on the points raised in the Alert?

    As ML note:

    “We are not suggesting that McChrystal is a bad or evil man who should not be afforded compassion. The point is that he is a deeply controversial figure responsible for the killing of enormous numbers of people. Attention should be drawn to the controversial and bloody nature of his activities, as would happen as a matter of course if he was one of ‘the bad guys’. Questions should be asked and answered about the death squads, about the allegations of torture, about the tsunami of civilian casualties.”

    As they also say:

    “It is not the job of serious journalism to fall at the feet of power, but British and American journalists habitually do just that.”

    Do you think your reporting and characterisation of McChrystal is appropriate in content and tone given the background here noted – a track record which, as a senior BBC journalist, you, presumably, know about?

    Can you see how your intimate representation of McChrystal helps authenticate the war in Afghanistan and its effect in legitimating the killing of Afghans?

    Bearing in mind the BBC’s specific guidelines on balanced reporting, would you ever present such a close and endearing portrayal of a Taliban leader or anyone else designated an official enemy of the West?

    Are you in any sense embarrassed by this output?

    I look forward to your considered thoughts.


    John Hilley


  4. Rehmat said on July 2nd, 2010 at 6:48am #

    By replacing Gen. Stanely McChrystal with another faild US military commander, Gen. David Petreaus, proved that he is a ‘copy-cat’ of the corrupt and failed Bush administration when it comes to America’s imperial ambitions or country’s foreign policy by blindly dancing to the tune of the powerful Jewish Lobby.

    Gen. David Petreaus had failed miserably in erradicating resistance in Iraq even after applying Israeli barbarian military advisors to torture Iraqi Muslims and Christians. In his briefing to Congress, Petreaus had Islamic Iran for his military failure in Iraq. Professor James Petras in one of his article bestowed the honor of Zionism\’s military poodle upon Gen. Petreaus for someone who has Israeli interests more closer to his heart that his own country’s (US) interests.

    John Stanton, an American author and crime investigator, wrote in May 2004 that both US and UK have long used the torture techniques perfected by Israelis on the Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners. Minister Farrakhan, also blamed Israelis for using their Nazi collaboration expeience in torturing (with photos) in Iraq.

    Amy Goodman, the Jew host of ‘Democracy Now’ has written an article, titled We Cannot Afford War, saying:

    “General Petraeus is a military man constantly at war with the facts,” began the attack ad against Gen. David Petraeus back in 2007, after he had delivered a report to Congress on the status of the war in Iraq. George W. Bush was president, and MoveOn was accusing Petraeus of “cooking the books for the White House.” The campaign asked “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” on a full-page ad in The Washington Post. MoveOn took tremendous heat for the campaign, but stood its ground.

    Three years later, Barack Obama is president, Petraeus has become his man in Afghanistan, and MoveOn pulls the critical Web content. Why? Because Bush’s first war, Afghanistan, has become Obama’s war, a quagmire. The U.S. will eventually negotiate its withdrawal from Afghanistan. The only difference between now and then will be the number of dead, on all sides, and the amount of (borrowed) money that will be spent.

    The statistics for Afghanistan, Obama’s Vietnam, are surging. June, with at least 100 U.S. deaths, is the highest number reported since the invasion in 2001. 2010 is on pace to be the year with the highest U.S. fatalities. Similar fates have befallen soldiers from the other, so-called coalition countries. Petraeus is becoming commander not only of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, but of all forces, as the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is run by NATO.

    U.S. troops, expected to rise to 98,000 this year, far outnumber those from other nations. Public and political support in many of those countries is waning.

    The whistle-blower website, which received international attention after releasing leaked video from a U.S. attack helicopter showing the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians and a Reuters cameraman and his driver in Baghdad, has just posted a confidential CIA memo detailing possible public relations strategies to counter waning public support for the Afghan War. The agency memo reads: “If domestic politics forces the Dutch to depart, politicians elsewhere might cite a precedent for ‘listening to the voters.’ French and German leaders have over the past two years taken steps to preempt an upsurge of opposition but their vulnerability may be higher now.””