Michael Hastings’ life and death: A brother’s reflections

Jonathan Hastings talks about the conspiracy theories surrounding Michael's death, and what he'd be doing today

Topics: Michael Hastings, Interviews, BuzzFeed, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Newsweek, conspiracy theories, Brothers, Editor's Picks, ,

Michael Hastings' life and death: A brother's reflectionsMichael Hastings (Credit: Penguin/AP)
A longer version of this interview appears at Uncouth Reflections.

On June 18, I learned that my friend Michael Hastings had died in Los Angeles in a very peculiar car crash that would spark a series of conspiracy theories. Mike, of course, had been a celebrated war correspondent and investigative journalist, most recently for BuzzFeed. At the time of his death he was just 33 years old, but his career was already packed with highlights. After Newsweek hired him as a full-time reporter, at his request he was sent to Iraq where he sent back first-class front-line reporting from that war-torn country. For Rolling Stone, he published a profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, NATO commander in Afghanistan, that resulted in McChrystal being forced to resign. He won a George Polk Award for that story.

Mike was so daring that within a few years he’d acquired near legendary status among journalists and journalism fans. And in 2008, he finally published his first book: “I Lost My Love in Baghdad,” about his girlfriend Andi Parhamovich, who was ambushed and killed while working in Iraq for the National Democratic Institute. In 2012, he followed that book with another one, “The Operators,” a behind-the-scenes look at the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan.

Mike’s older brother Jonathan Hastings agreed to talk to us about his brother’s life: his ambitions, interests, as well as Jonathan’s own take on the conspiracy theories surrounding Mike’s death. What follows is a slightly condensed transcript of our conversation.

I know we both want this interview to mainly concern Mike as a person. But before we go there, why don’t we start by cutting directly to the headlines? … I know you flew out to check in on Mike just a day or two before the crash.

As I told the police out in L.A., a few days before he died, Mike called me and I got the impression that he was having a manic episode, similar to one he had had 15 years ago, which he had referred to in his writing. At that time, drugs had been involved, and I suspected that might be the case again. I immediately booked a flight to L.A. for the next day, with the thought that maybe I could convince him to come back to Vermont to dry out or (less likely) get him to go to detox/rehab there in L.A. When I got to L.A. and saw him, I immediately realized that he was not going to go willingly. I started to make arrangements with our other brother to fly out and help me possibly force Mike into checking himself into a hospital or detox center. I’d thought that I had at least convinced Mike to just stay in his apartment and chill out for the next few days, but he snuck out on me when I was sleeping. He crashed his car before anyone could do anything to help him … I ended up telling this all to the police on Tuesday morning, as I was one of the last people to see him alive and I was one of the few people who could really put his behavior on that day in context.

How good a job do you feel the cops have done looking into the crash?

I feel that the investigation was pretty thorough. The LAPD was very easy to work with, and I think they did a good job. I certainly have no real complaints about them or the coroner’s office, and I think everyone in my family is satisfied with the report. For the most part, it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know or strongly suspect.

I think there’s a larger context that [the report] leaves out, but a lot of that stuff seems to me to be out of the scope of a report about a traffic accident.

How have you reacted to the way the press has covered the report?

If I have any problems, it’s with how the report was written about in the press. There were a lot of journalists-in-quotes who didn’t seem to have read it very carefully or were, irresponsibly I think, taking things out of context. I guess that’s understandable — I mean, of course the press is going to sensationalize things and play up the juicy stuff. But just because it was understandable didn’t mean I liked it.

Have you kept tabs on the conspiracy rumors?

I kind of pay attention because I’m interested in what people are saying, and the fringe stuff really doesn’t upset me. I think it’s kind of strange that there are now “Michael Hastings Truthers” out there, but that just seems to be a side effect of how the Internet works these days. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that there are so many people who are really invested in the idea that he was murdered by the government, but I still think it’s a weird thing for people who didn’t know him to get hung up on. A lot of them seem not to have been familiar with his work before he died, so it isn’t simply a result of grieving fans, or something.

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How has the rest of your family reacted to the swirl of speculations?

They’ve managed to mostly ignore the rumors, I think. I don’t think anyone is bitter about them. The government is out of control in a lot of ways, so I sympathize with people who want to turn Mike’s death into some kind of symbol. I just think that his death happens to be a bad foundation to build that case on. I’d much rather see people celebrating the work he actually did. I think that would be more effective politically in the long run, too. One other thing is that by casting Mike’s death as a kind of Robert Ludlum-style conspiracy, people miss out on how the government actually silences and suppresses reporters: through the threat of legal action, or, as in the case of Mike’s friend Barrett Brown, taking actual legal action. I’d like to see a lot of the people upset over a “Michael Hastings coverup” to turn their efforts towards keeping Barrett out of prison.

What are your own thoughts about the cause of death? Do you have any feelings at all that foul play might have been involved?

I really rule out foul play entirely. I might have been suspicious if I hadn’t been with him the day before he died. After all, he definitely was investigating and writing about a lot of sensitive subjects. But based on being with him and talking to people who were worried about him in the weeks leading up to his death, and being around him when he had had similar problems when he was younger, I was pretty much convinced that he wasn’t in danger from any outside agency.

It did seem weird, the way that the Mercedes more or less exploded, and that the engine was thrown so far away.

I think the explosion and everything else can be accounted for by the fact that his car was going really, really fast. That’s a lot of kinetic energy and a lot of fuel involved when you’re going full throttle like that.

Switching gears, let’s talk a bit about Mike’s life. What was he like as a kid? What was his role in the family?

He was always the one pushing the boundaries. I’d probably also say he was the squeaky wheel. But it’s more that he was not easily satisfied with standing still and was always looking to get involved in some new hobby or have some new interest.

Was he an outgoing kid?

Mike was always very charismatic and popular … I was definitely more reserved than him: I was shy but Mike was a real leader …

Once he’d made it into the New York City media world, how did he react to it?

He met many writers and editors he admired. But he also was frustrated by the entire machinery of the media.

What kinds of things irked him?

One of his big complaints — which he was pretty vocal about — was that he knew a number of people in the media who he believed had been publicly pro-Iraq War, even though they were privately skeptical or even antiwar but who had, according to Mike, gone along with the pro-war sentiment for the sake of their careers. That became a big sticking point with him later on. I think it was really an influential experience for him — an important negative example — in terms of how he decided to approach the role of a journalist.

What did being a foreign correspondent and a war reporter mean to him?

He was a self-proclaimed war junkie. He loved reading about war — that was one of his major interests as a kid. He and I played all sorts of war games growing up: playing “Army” in the field across from our house, later on playing highly detailed strategy board games that re-created historical battles. One of Mike’s favorite role-playing games was “Recon,” in which players take on the roles of soldiers in the Vietnam War. He was interested in this stuff very early on.

How serious was his interest in the stuff? More as games? More as preparation for reality?

He was just really into the military. The idea of him being in the military for real wasn’t something we thought of, simply because he didn’t like authority. But he was definitely into warrior culture and badass soldier types. So it made sense that once the Iraq War started, he wanted to go see what it looked like up close.

The thought of war makes me want to get as far away from it as possible.

Have you seen Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”? There’s a scene where Tom Cruise’s kid decides that the Martian invasion is the Big Thing of his life and that he really needs to run away so he can see what the battle looks like. Mike was like that kid.

How did the family feel about him heading to the [Middle East]?

We tried to talk him into not going. And after Andi [Mike's first wife] died, we tried to tell him not to go back. But he was always dismissive of any concerns, and if you pressed him too hard he’d just cut you off. He really wasn’t interested in anyone else’s advice, or at least our advice from within the family, because he felt he knew best about this stuff.

How did Mike meet Andi, about whom he wrote the book “I Lost My Love in Baghdad”?

I’m pretty sure Mike met Andi when she was working at Air America and he was trying to get on the radio more.

…We definitely had misgivings about her going to the Mideast. The last time I saw her my parents and I had just had dinner with her. Mike was already back in Iraq, and she was waiting to hear back about whether or not she had gotten the job with NDI in Iraq. I told her, in all seriousness, that I hoped she didn’t get the job. I also talked to Mike about her going and said that I didn’t think it was a good idea. I don’t think he thought it was a great idea either, but he said that ultimately the decision was up to her — which was true.

How did her death affect him?

He was a real wreck. My parents — my father especially — got him through the first part of all of it.

How did you feel about Mike’s book about Andi? Did you ever talk with him about it?

We never really talked much about it after he had written it. We talked about some of the reviews, but we never really talked much about what was in it. It’s still kind of a hard book for me to talk about.

It must have been a big relief for your family when Mike returned from the war zone.

Yeah. By 2013, I figured Mike had dodged all the major bullets. He was back from overseas and couldn’t do the same kind of war reporting he used to do. The McChrystal story had made that too difficult for him logistically. And who expects someone to survive Afghanistan and get taken down by Hollywood? Well, now that I mention it …

Where did Mike think the journalism biz was heading?

Mike thought that when it all shook out, there’d be the New York Times, AP and Reuters doing the actual grunt work of journalism, and the only other way to be a real journalist would be to write long form nonfiction of the kind he wrote for GQ or Rolling Stone, or the stuff you see in the New Yorker. But he did think journalism was a special calling, even if he thought the business of it was sinking … He could be very romantic about the duties and responsibilities of journalists, which contradicted his Norman Mailer, it’s-all-for-me ideas. I don’t think he really had a coherent take on his motives — but then who does? I’d argue with him about the journalism-as-special-calling thing, because I didn’t think it was, really. But he didn’t budge on it. So I don’t think he thought of it all as entertainment, though he did think he’d have to go to Hollywood if he wanted to get the kind of money he wanted for his writing.

Was Mike a political person, generally?

Apart from the war, which he had a personal connection with, I’m not sure that he really cared deeply about any causes. He wasn’t liberal in the conventional sense of the word. He was extremely anti-p.c. about a lot of things. But he definitely wasn’t conservative either. I remember we went to an antiwar demonstration right after the initial invasion of Afghanistan, and his POV was definitely one of an observer/outsider. His main reaction was that it was stupid to have an antiwar demonstration that was so inclusive of every other leftist cause. He looked at it from the POV of how effective the message was, not so much about the content of the message.

What did you see his near future looking like?

I thought that he’d work in Hollywood for a year or two, get frustrated being there, and then head back to do his journalism thing on the East Coast. Maybe he’d keep writing, and maybe even start teaching — he liked being around young people who looked up to him.

Ray Sawhill worked as an arts reporter for Newsweek.

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