The career of one of the most heralded generals in the U.S. military came to a screeching halt over the course of one week in June, thanks to some volcanic ash, an Irish pub in Paris and an intrepid Rolling Stone reporter.

Veteran war correspondent Michael Hastings was supposed to get a short interview in April with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of the war effort in Afghanistan, to write a profile for Rolling Stone magazine when ash from an Icelandic volcano forced the general’s flying party to hole up in Paris and Berlin. Along the way, McChrystal and his loose-lipped staff made disparaging comments about nearly every civilian political leader above them, and it went right into the magazine’s pages.

Leaked copies of the article began circulating among Pentagon reporters late on a Monday afternoon. Within hours, McChrystal had called Vice President Joe Biden and issued a public apology. The next day, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the interview a “significant mistake” and the White House summoned the general to Washington. The next morning, after a 30-minute Pentagon meeting with Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, the ax fell in the Oval Office.

McChrystal’s military career was over.

It was swift and stunning in many ways. Nobody understood counterinsurgency like McChrystal, Pentagon officials said, and they were caught flat-footed to find a replacement. Mullen said he felt sick to his stomach reading the article, “but I cannot excuse his lack of judgment,” or his “disrespectful” staff. President Barack Obama surprised Gates and suggested Gen. David Petraeus step down from leading U.S. Central Command to take the reins in Kabul.

Petraeus was the most recognizable man in the U.S. military. Taking the job put his spotless reputation — he’s credited with turning the tide in Iraq — on the line. If Afghanistan fails, he fails. Already, the more media-savvy general has had an impact on the ground and the airwaves. Notably, airstrikes held back in an abundance of caution against civilian casualties under McChrystal have ramped up — as has offensive fighting across the country — as 30,000 surge troops arrived in country.

In 2011, the White House has promised to begin drawing down troops if conditions permit. It’s Petraeus’ job to see that they do.

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