June 27, 2010— -- History provides a seemingly limitless collections of "What Ifs," musings about roads not taken.
What if Al Gore had won in 2000? If John Wilkes Booth had not made it to the state box at Ford's Theater? What if German Army officers had succeeded in their attempt to kill Adolf Hitler? Or – a lighter example – what if Bill Buckner hadn't bungled Mookie Wilson's grounder in the 1986 World Series?
Put differently – as a great "what if" for 2010: What if that oddly-named volcano had never blown, and never wreaked its havoc on international travel? Might the general still have his job? Might Gen. David Petraeus still be at the helm of Central Command? Might Barack Obama have been spared another rough week in his prosecution of a difficult war?
Here's how it goes:
In April, freelance reporter Michael Hastings was granted access to McChrystal and his team for a Rolling Stone profile. Under the arrangement, Hastings was to have a day or two with McChrystal and his men in Paris. Later the piece would be filled out with a reporting visit to Afghanistan.
But by mid-April, Eyjafjallajökull was rumbling, its ash rocketing skyward. Airplanes across Europe idled, leaving millions of passengers either delayed or stranded. It would prove the worst disruption of air travel since the Second World War.
Military aircraft were not immune, even the ones that carry four-star generals. As a result, the man in charge of the Afghan War languished, 3,500 miles from the battlefield. Hastings' quick visit with McChrystal's team became a reportorial odyssey, a mother lode of access to the top commander.
They waited in Paris for a bus ride to Berlin, then passed nearly a week at Berlin's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a total of 10 days divided between the two capitals before they even left for Afghanistan. This period in Europe was, by Hastings' account, an alcohol-soaked time, when the Bud Light Limes flowed. It was also the time during which McChrystal and his aides made most of the disparaging comments that so infuriated the president and his top aides.
Did Volcano Cause McChrystal to Blow His Stack?
So – "What If?" What if Iceland's volcano had remained quiet?
Well, the skies would have been clear, and the planes would have flown. There would have been no long layover for Stanley McChrystal, and far less access for Michael Hastings. The booze wouldn't have flowed (or at least, there would have been less of it). Less booze, fewer loose lips. You get the idea.
When the moment came this week, General McChrystal fell on his sword, laying blame unequivocally upon himself for a lapse in tact and judgment. But one can certainly understand if the general, back home at the end of such a humbling week, stripped so publicly of his command, holds a harsh thought or two for Mother Nature, and her child called Eyjafjallajökull.