Michael Hastings’ tumultuous career

Booknotes looks at the life and times of a war correspondent

Michael Hastings

Michael Hastings

Mike Selby

“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue” is the last statement anyone wants to hear from a control tower employee trying to prevent an airline disaster, which is why it was so funny when it first appeared in the 1980 film ‘Airplane.’  More recently it became a favourite catchphrase of journalist Michael Hastings, who could be heard saying it to himself whenever he was in great danger.  And Michael Hastings was in great danger a lot.

Hastings found his calling at an early age, writing for and spearheading many school newspapers and college magazines.  In 2002 he became an unpaid intern for Newsweek (his diary of that time has just been published in the hilarious book ‘The Last Magazine’). All along he had his sights on being a war correspondent, and pestered Newsweek to send him to Iraq. It took a long time, but Newsweek finally relented and sent Hastings to Baghdad in 2005 (relented may be a bit harsh — Hasting was one of the brightest and hardest working interns they had ever seen).

Never one to hang back, Hastings simply walked into the front lines, weaving in and out the highly dangerous war zones. He was sending back dispatches none of the senior reporters were getting, causing them to admire and resent the young reporter. Finally living his dream, he told his girlfriend (Andi Parhamovich) back home about the adrenaline-rush of reporting combat combined with the horror and sadness of war. She soon followed him over, accepting a job with Baghdad’s National Democratic Institute — where she would teach classes on democracy to the locals.

On January 18 of 2007, Parhamovich was returning from a lecture when Sunni insurgents ambushed her and UN guard escort, executing all of them. Hastings returned to the States to bury his girlfriend, and to set up The Andi Foundation, which would provide financial aide to students. ‘I Lost My Love In Baghdad’ was published the following year, Hastings’ first book.  Deeply affected by his girlfriend’s death, Hastings nonetheless returned to the battlefield.

In 2010 Rolling Stone Magazine sent him to Afghanistan, where once again Hastings ignored any signs of danger, crossing enemy lines to interview one of Kandahar’s most ruthless warlords. Not completely un-self-aware, his dispatches always included the recklessness and stupidity of his actions. “I know it’s a risk,” he would write. “I know it’s not a healthy lifestyle. I know it’s a addiction. I know it is the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.”

It was during this time that Hastings interviewed General Stanley McChrystal, causing President Obama to relieve McChrystal of his command over the remarks he made to Hastings. Although debate erupted over whether McChrystal and his staff thought they speaking off the record, Hastings was thrust into the national spotlight, winning the prestigious Polk Award.  He expanded these articles into the 2012 book ‘The Operators.’

After this he finally focused his efforts stateside, reporting more on domestic political matters. He began an in-depth profile of CIA director John Brennan for Rolling Stone. But friends and family began to notice something wasn’t quite right with Hastings.  He appeared to be frequently agitated, manic, and paranoid. He told them felt he was being followed and spied on.  He began to drink heavily, and abuse the drug Adderall. He was also convinced someone was tampering with his car.

Hastings was killed on June 18 last year, when his Mercedes slammed into a palm tree and exploded. High rates of speed, which were caught on camera, was the official cause of death, with the police finding zero evidence of foul play.

Sadly, a single car accident combined with Hastings’ paranoia before he died was the perfect mix for various conspiracy theories to arise. That he was researching the director of the CIA before he died was almost too perfect for the “man who knew too much” assassination theory.

What isn’t taken into account or disregarded is the fact that Hastings was suffering and seeking treatment for PTSD. Or that he had crashed cars into trees at high speeds while intoxicated three times previously.

None of this matters though.  What does matter is that one of the bravest and brightest reporters lost his life last year, at the young age of 33. He was awarded the Norman Mailer Prize for Distinguished Journalism posthumously. In the words of his editor, he left behind “a body of work, truly significant and memorable work, that seems impossible for someone so young.”

Mike Selby is Reference Libarian at the Cranbrook Public Library