I first met Michael Hastings in the summer of 2007, in a coffee shop in lower Manhattan. He looked terrible. He was trying very hard to finish writing a very difficult book, and so part of it was just the look of a deadline-haunted writer—anxious and sleep-deprived and subsisting a bit too much on coffee and cigarettes. But the subject of the book was what was really haunting him. It was about the year and a half he’d spent reporting for Newsweek in Baghdad, during a time when the country had gone completely insane with violence—and more specifically, about the car bombing that killed his fiancee, Andi Parhamovich, in January 2007.
We sat in the coffee shop and talked for several hours. Mike was looking for someone to help edit the book, which I was happy to do, but I think he was also looking for someone to tell him that it was okay to be lost, that he couldn’t possibly have perspective yet on the thing that he was writing about. A publishing machine was already in motion—he’d been paid a lot of money to deliver the book on time (much of that money went to setting up the Andi Foundation, which provides scholarships and financial assistance to women pursuing their professional dreams)—but he was still very much ruled by anger and grief, and so the only book that he could write, if he had to write one then, would be an enactment of that anger and grief.
It’s a flawed book. There were things about his relationship with Andi that Mike simply couldn’t get enough distance on at the time. I don’t think anyone could have. To open himself up to those feelings and write about them honestly would have been too much for him—at least that was my sense of where he was at the time. But it’s also, much more often, an incandescent book—raw and honest and full of rage and tenderness and despair. In the immediacy and frankness of its emotions, in the way that the trauma of war lives right there on the page, I Lost My Love in Baghdad is unlike any other book of war reporting that I know. I felt extremely proud to have been able to work with him on it.
The book came out to many spectacular reviews and to some deeply critical ones. That would be the way of Mike’s work. He wasn’t a reporter interested in politeness, and he wasn’t worried about making enemies if what he was writing was in the service of a plainly (if sometimes aggressively) stated truth. His opinions—especially his opinions about the war and the arrogance of the men who prosecuted it—were forged in the most cruel way. But eventually that made him see more clearly, and it drove him to report and write with true fearlessness. One of the mistakes people sometimes make when talking about Mike’s work is to confuse his often aggressive tone with a lack of thoughtfulness. It’s completely wrong. He read voraciously; his perspective was shaped not just by that searing personal experience but by a deep knowledge of history and philosophy and political science. He was confident and sometimes brash because he knew a lot and believed he’d earned the right to those opinions, and he was writing, in his best pieces of journalism, not just for the moment but for something larger.
The two stories he published in GQ (in addition to an excerpt from his book) are perfect examples of that. One, “Hack,” is about the hypocrisy of political journalism. It’s funny and offensive and self-excoriating, and as several political reporters have said to me in the years since the piece was published, it states exactly what they’ve often felt themselves but were too afraid to admit. The other story, “Obama’s War,” was Mike’s first return to war reporting after he’d left Baghdad in the days after Andi’s death. He went to the Afghanistan/Pakistan border and brought back a story that illustrated, in harsh relief, what would become clearer and clearer, and said by more and more people, in the months and years to come—that “counterinsurgency” could not be applied in Afghanistan, that the notion that it could was a lie that was costing billions of dollars and thousands of lives. There weren’t a whole lot of people saying that at the time this story came out.
The fact of that lie—and of lies that are told every day at someone else’s terrible expense—energized and infuriated him, and resulted in a body of work, truly significant and memorable work, that seems impossible for someone so young. Mike was a remarkably gifted and ambitious journalist. He was an even more thoughtful and generous friend. We’re proud to have published this kind of journalism, and very lucky to have known him.