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Matt Farwell, Expert Chronicler of War's Weird Characters
The Army vet and gonzo journalist is digging into Tom Clancy, Michael Flynn, and other whackos in the national security space.
Matt Farwell may be the best gonzo journalist working today. He’s a salty (and sweet) Army vet who served between 2005 and 2010, including as an infantryman in Afghanistan.
One of Farwell’s earliest pieces came in The New York Times’ now-defunct “At War” section. There, he wrote with clarity about PTSD and his post-deployment struggles — and also how his military training prepared him to be homeless in Palo Alto.
Farwell later co-authored “American Cipher” the definitive book on Bowe Berghdahl. He’s also contributed a series of illuminating and, at times, downright weird tales on other topics, among them UFOs, the Boy Scouts, and Jeffrey Epstein.
He recently wrote the cover story for The New Republic. It’s a rollicking tale on retired General Michael Flynn’s political aspirations. Farwell also runs a fantastic Substack — The Hunt for Tom Clancy — where he examines the life and work of the most talented military propagandist America has ever seen.
I recently spoke to Matt about his life and work. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Battle Borne: I've been reading you for a while and it seems that you focus on the strange characters and conspiracies and ideology that permeate the military and surveillance state. Shit that doesn't sound real, but is. Does that sound about right?
Matt Farwell: [Laughs] My stock answer when people ask me what I write is that I do depressing shit about soldiers and spies.
I think that is more applicable to my work on the Bergdahl stuff than it is now. But you're right. I gravitate towards the oddballs and what the oddballs create. And, you know, some people say that I’m into conspiracies. I'm really not. I'm into how history unfolded and how our present-day is actually unfolding. And I mean, conspiracy is a legal definition that is used in RICO statutes to put mobsters away. So clearly there are conspiracies in America. Every time I look into a big news story, I find out that it's being spun one way or the other to serve somebody's agenda. And while it may use the truth, it doesn't always contain the truth, you know?
BB: Yeah, absolutely. Was there a point in your military career, or maybe it was even before then, where you realized that these big dogs in charge are often insane people with weird predilections and connections to powerful institutions and corporations?
MF: I grew up Mormon in a military family overseas. So there was maybe a point at which I realized that everyone else did not realize the same thing that I had known my entire life, which is that a sizable number of people in the military and security services are certifiable.
It really kind of crushed me, actually.
I joined the Army after dropping out of the University of Virginia in my junior year. I wind up as an infantry guy going to Afghanistan for the longest conventional deployment of the Global War on Terror. That's our distinction — and we have the highest suicide rate. I eventually wind up being a driver. The four-star, General [Martin] Dempsey, was one of my big bosses for those years. General [William] Wallace was the other one.
I'm a sergeant and I'm the lowest ranking person in the headquarters and one of the only enlisted people there. And you're out there on the line, rolling around with people shooting at you and people not liking you. Sleeping on the hood of the Humvee and eating MRE's and not showering. And you sorta assume that's all for a good reason, that the people above you are smart. And then you get to headquarters and you're like, "Oh, fuck, Oh my God." It must be what it's like if you're really into Scientology and you finally get to the last lesson and you’re like, "Wait. Are you fucking serious?That's what this is?"
So I had that realization. It was really crazy. I thought, “How can I be so stupid to think these people are smart?”
BB: Let’s talk about your New Republic cover story on Michael Flynn. It seems like your piece is trying to grapple with whether he is a psycho or a brilliant military mind or both.
Can you tell me a little bit about what your thoughts were going in on Flynn and how they might have changed during your reporting?
MF: I've always come at Flynn with a little bit of a predisposed bias because I was friends with and worked with [former Rolling Stone reporter] Michael Hastings. And Hastings spent a lot of time around Flynn. And he really liked him, thought he was brilliant.
And Flynn’s weird. And that's an interesting thing.
BB: Where'd you get Flynn’s phone number?
MF: From, uh, a- a source who said he gave it out to a few reporters and I was the only one who got him to talk.
BB: Nice. I know it was difficult to get much face time with Flynn, but you talked to people in his orbit. You saw this political identity that he is building. What did you learn from all of that?
MF: I learned essentially that there are multiple informational streams in America at this present juncture. If I were just going by what I'd read on Twitter, I would assume that going to an American priority festival like the thing I went to at the Trump Doral would basically be a white supremacist rally. That's how its painted. But it was so much more than that. It wasn't just the Charlottesville tacky-tiki-torch crowd.
Second, it's always interesting when say, someone like Roger Stone or Jim Carville or Donna Brazile or any of those political kingmaker people latch on to somebody. And Stone has latched on to Flynn, or Flynn has latched on to Stone. They got close when they were both under investigation by the FBI, you know, as people do.
The Flynn I observed was a charismatic politician that is better at the retail politics side of it than any general officer I've seen. I mean, I remember when Wesley Clark was gonna run for president and he was trying with some Arkansas Rhodes Scholar bullshit. Like he's a common man. It didn't quite work out. But Flynn is an Irish Catholic dude who grew up in the middle of a family of nine in Middletown, Rhode Island within sight of all the pricks in Newport. And so he can work both sides of the aisle really well.
BB: It's been a while since we had a General as president. You think America is ready for another one?
MF: I don't know. I mean, he's not gonna run as a general, he's gonna run as a warrior. And I think that distinction is different, is important. He's gonna run as a soldier who was persecuted, which is a much better comeback story than a general who presided over a massive assassination program.
BB: Does he he just want power? Why would he want to be president?
MF: He told me that the only way he could shut any program down was either being National Security Adviser or being president. So I think he's on a holy quest to change the American intelligence and national security landscape. And the main way he can do that is by being president. He thought he could do it through proxy by having [Donald] Trump be president. He couldn't. And now, he's got to move into the main job.
BB: Do you think that would be a positive development?
MF: I think it's pretty clear our intelligence community is a bunch of old and broken crooks who can't get shit right except for like, you know, how to get in bed with the worst people on the planet. I think it was good when the Church Committee hearings happened. I think it was good when Jimmy Carter fired a whole bunch of CIA operations officers that worked on the Phoenix Program. As weird as it sounds, yeah, that might be a positive development. I mean, Flynn talked about abolishing the FBI, why not? How many more mentally ill 19-year-old minorities need to be recruited into terror plots by the FBI?
BB: Let's move on to Tom Clancy. You write in your Substack that he did this literary jujitsu where he would take a recent event or series of events that went badly for the military, the CIA, the FBI, and then fictionally recast them as wins. And as you you write, he had unprecedented access to the CIA. He was talking to [former CIA Director] Bob Gates, he was cozy with the military surveillance state.
How do you read his work and political beliefs?
MF: If you go strictly by Clancy novels, the military is full of selfless, competent professionals who were using the best equipment provided by likewise selfless contractors like Northrop Grumman. And you see a CIA that is constantly doing the right thing and solving problems and fixing the world and making the world a better place. And so it's like the West Wing but for for national security stuff.
And so, why did he write those things? Why did he lionize these people?
I mean, his best friend was a Vietnam helicopter pilot. He went to college in the '60s. A lot of his insurance clients worked at Annapolis or were former nuclear submariners that worked at the nearby nuclear power plant. So it's all kind of the water in which he swam.
The other reason was public relations, man. Ronald Reagan was an actor in westerns, don’t forget. He came into office from where? California. Were he was what? President of the Screen Actors Guild. If you think Reagan didn't have any interest in reshaping the American cultural landscape, I think you're crazy. Clancy essentially writes updated Westerns to sell the public on the nobility of the American foreign policy project.
BB: How did Tom Clancy influence you and how did he influence American culture?
MF: I'm unabashedly a Tom Clancy's fan. I radically like his movies and his books. These were books that I read as a kid. I mean, we're talking like third or fourth grade. Being from a military family, being overseas with a dad who was a submariner in Vietnam, it was kind of a way to relate to and understand the environment.
BB: How did his work influence Americans thinking about war?
MF: They were really important in building consensus and public consciousness around repairing the American reputation after Vietnam. Clancy was part of the engine in that truck that got it back to point where, in 2003, you could have every major journalist in the country saying, “Yes, the military is great and yes, they're right. The Iraqis will greet us with open arms and we'll create a flowering democracy.”
BB: Just a couple more questions, and then I'll let you go. Do you think that someone has taken the torch from Clancy and carried it forward?
Matt: I think the closest analog we've had in recent years has been Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, [the creative forces behind Zero Dark Thirty.]
As far as like narrative and imagination, the closest thing I've seen to the way Clancy had a segment of the population's mind has been the Q Anon stuff. I read every single one of those posts. The narrative elements were brilliant. It was compelling, it brought crazy shit from nearly every corner but didn't overwhelm with it. It had inside jokes. It was a really well-crafted piece of propaganda, a psychological operation, whatever you want to call it. Whoever was doing the world-building is probably the heir to Tom Clancy, to be honest.
But also, Clancy’s never going away. He's become like Obi-Wan, he's more powerful than he ever was in life. He's a video game. He's a book. He's a movie. He's an Amazon TV series starring the guy from The Office.
He’s created a genre — the techno-thriller — which is well-written technical writing melded on to exciting narratives. Clancy was very good at plot. David Foster Wallace used to teach “The Sum of All Fears.” Clancy’s description of how a nuclear bomb works? Fuck, I did not understand it before I read Tom Clancy. And then after I read Tom Clancy I got it.
The military is really good at making exciting shit sound boring. Clancy could polish any story and make it better.
BB: Final question: If you could bring Clancy back from the dead and sit down with him, what would you want to know?
MF: Was it worth it? I always wanna know that. When somebody is getting their name bought for $45,000,000 by a software company, they're not a normal human being.
There's something that they've given up to get to that state. Whether it's time, whether it's their relationship with their family, whether it's their perception of the world. You've made compromises. And I would ask him, was it worth it? He seemed like he had a great time. He seemed like he just fucking loved it. So I would suspect, yeah, it was all worth it.