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What can we learn about ourselves from the career of General Petraeus?

11 November 2012

Summary: Any leader both reflects and magnifies his followers. That’s doubly so for a star in trouble times like ours. we can learn much about America, about ourselves, from the ascent and crash of General Petraeus. This brief note recaps his career and draws one lesson. Note your conclusions in the comment!

I want your children for my wars!

Historians might use the career of General Petraeus as a microcosm of our America. Our most lionized General is a familiar figure in military history: dashing appearance, charismatic, skillful bureaucratic warfare and public relations — but usually wrong on the battlefield.

The best known in our history is George McClellan (who ran against Lincoln in 1864; Tom Ricks sees him at the 6th worst general in US history). After Korea these became markers of failures in our failed wars. Remember Vietnam: Maxwell Taylor (another scholar-general), William Westmoreland, and Creighton Abrams? Each hailed as Übermensch, until they fell.

As Tom Engelhard shows in ”Petraeus, Falling Upwards — The Petraeus Story“ (TomDispatch, 30 April 2008), Petraeus’ record is largely one of military failure. His early days in Iraq, the COIN manual (now largely discredited), the mostly fake “Iraq Surge” success, the doomed from the start Afghanistan “surge” — Petraeus pops like a milestone along the road of our disastrous wars.

The difference between McClellan and Petraeus is that 19th century American’s made excuses for McClellan’s failures — but saw Petraeus’ failures as successes. An early example of this — our eagerness to be fooled — was in the Petraeus-Crocker hearing: see Congress shows us how our new government works (14 April 2008). Institutional failure all around.

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Now we enter the next (but perhaps not the last) act in the Petraeus story, the sad applause for this sad episode in this interesting man’s life: “Petraeus scandal is reported with compelled veneration of all things military“, Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian, 10 November 2012 — “The reverence for the former CIA Director is part of a wider religious-like worship of the national security state.”

We can run a tentative scorecard for the wars marking the general’s career, in which he was a key player.

  • The Iraq war has ended in almost total failure for the US, as our expenditure of blood and money produced few or no gains for America.
  • The Afghanistan War nears its end, after 26 years (starting the clock with our provision of Stingers to the Mujahideen.
  • Most recently he re-tasked the already defective intelligence resources of the CIA, turning it even more thoroughly into a paramilitary force. Petraeus’ contribution to closing America’s eyes.

Some future historians will grow famous investigating his career. Perhaps our children will learn from it, and avoid our mistakes. Too bad we cannot learn from our own experiences.

Updates to the story

(a) See a scorecard run by ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern: “Pundit Tears for Petraeus’s Fall“.

(b) Spencer Ackerman gives a mea culpa: “How I Was Drawn Into the Cult of David Petraeus“, Wired, 11 November 2012 — No evidence that Ackerman realizes this is a structural problem, and that he’ll fall for the next Übermensch the flacks at DoD manufacture.

(c) Brilliant analysis by Bernard Finel (Assoc Prof, National War College): “The Real Sin in the Petraeus Case”. His conclusion touches on a long-standing theme of this website:

Worse, Petraeus’ legacy on civil-military relations is likely to endure. He showed how easy it is for a military leader to act as a policy maker, to wage a deliberate campaign of manipulation and propaganda against the American public. Petraeus’ conduct since 2004 has been profoundly anti-democratic. He’s been a cancer on civil-military relations. My main hope now is that instead of focusing on salacious details, we can instead shine a harsh light on the “age of Petraeus” and its destructive legacy.

(d) Incisive analysis by Michael Hastings (author of the famous Rolling Stone article about General McChrystal) at BuzzFeed: “The Sins Of General David Petraeus” — “Petraeus seduced America. We should never have trusted him.” Hastings reveals to a mass audience history about our wars that has long been hidden by the news media.

(e) The bottom line about Petraeus by Douglas MacGregor (Colonel, US Army, retired), from “Fall of the House of Petraeus?“, Kelley B. Vlahos, 13 November 2012:

How does an officer with no personal experience of direct fire combat in Panama or Desert Storm become a division [commander] in 2003, a man who shamelessly reinforced whatever dumb idea his superior advanced regardless of its impact on soldiers, let alone the nation, a man who served repeatedly as a sycophantic aide de camp, military assistant and executive officer to four stars get so far? How does the same man who balked at closing with and destroying the enemy in 2003 in front of Baghdad agree to sacrifice more than a thousand American lives and destroy thousands of others installing Iranian national power in Baghdad with a surge that many in and out of uniform warned against? Then, how does this same man repeat the self-defeating tactics one more time in Afghanistan?

The answer is simple: Petraeus was always a useful fool in the Leninist sense for his political superiors — [Paul] Wolfowitz, [Donald] Rumsfeld, and [Bob] Gates. And that is precisely how history will judge him.

(f) Note the chorus from Petraeus insiders I never understood why Broadwell was so close to the General. It was an office romance; the insiders usually know. The frequent mention of the tight outfits is a tell that they understood the play (however politically incorrect it is to mention this).

Is this America’s future, endless war?

For More Information

About the “surge” in Iraq:

Articles about FM 3-24 – the COIN manual:

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. guest permalink
    11 November 2012 12:58 am

    I think one very crucial skill is missing here: he knew when to exit the battlefield early enough — before any kind of failure or setback could be connected to his name.

    In this respect, he resembles those dashing, charismatic CEOs, skillful at corporate infighting and public relations, who reorganize, trim fat and dead wood, launch new product strategies — and leave basking in the glory of a supposed turn-around of the firms they lead, before those start listing heavily from the actions of their former boss.

    Probably an aspect of the culture of the society and of the way any large organization works, more than a specific trait of the military.

    Like

    • 11 November 2012 1:36 am

      Guest,

      All great points! As the Gambler says…

      You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
      Know when to fold ‘em
      Know when to walk away
      Know when to run
      You never count your money
      When you’re sittin’ at the table
      There’ll be time enough for countin’
      When the dealin’s done

      Of course, General Petraeus successfully walked away from Afghanistan, but he left it full of US (and NATO) troops. How many thousands of our troops were killed or crippled before the almost inevitable failure of DoD’s foolish “surge”?

      Like

  2. qaiasrequite permalink
    11 November 2012 3:46 am

    So are we to believe that he resigned because of the “scandalous” affair he had, or just simply because he was a failure and the affair gave him a good out?

    I’m not trying to be cynical, this is a real question that I would like answered. It seems the media is making him out to be some god like general, who simply made an error of judgment.
    Yet every thing I read here paints a different picture?

    Like

    • 11 November 2012 3:58 am

      “So are we to believe that he resigned because of the “scandalous” affair he had”

      Yes. Quite a few senior officers in the military have been relieved of command in the past few years for adultery. It’s more serious for someone vulnerable to blackmail, like the head of the CIA.

      “It seems the media is making him out to be some god like general, who simply made an error of judgment.”

      Note they seldom say why he was so awesome. Or if they do, it’s false: like the now discredited (by experience) FM 3-24 COIN guide. And the largely fake surge in Iraq, and the real but unsuccessful surge in Afghanistan.

      This is an example of our inability to clearly see the world, subject of so many posts on the FM website.

      Like

    • gaiasrequite permalink
      11 November 2012 4:34 am

      Interesting…I know at a lower military levels, adultery is a serious offence. I was however lead to believe that in the higher ranks not much was done about it. I have also seen the extent to which some of these people will go to cover it up. This gives some interesting insight to humans and their ideas of ethics.

      Thanks for the information it will be helpful for a project I am thinking of working on.
      I also want to extend my thanks for the numerous times the FM web site has corrected errors on my posts;)

      Like

    • 11 November 2012 5:18 am

      From casual reading of Military News, an unusually large number of commanding officers have been relieved due to assorted gender-related matters, including adultery, in recent years.

      How this incidence changes with rank, such as flag ranks, I don’t know.

      Does anyone have links to articles about this?

      Like

  3. 11 November 2012 5:53 am

    There is also the resolution Congress passed condemning MoveOn.org for its having the temerity to pay for an ad urging Petreaus not to betray us.

    Like

    • 11 November 2012 9:10 am

      That Move On ad struck me as the single most stupid tactical error made by the left in years. I found it every bit as tonedeaf as John Kerry’s cringeworthy, condescending statements about abortion in 2004. (I say that as a Kerry supporter who volunteered for his campaign at the grassroots level and doesn’t regret it a bit.) It clearly set back the already weak, disorganized movement to hold Petraeus accountable for his incompetence in theater. Only a sheltered, callow fool wouldn’t realize that that sort of juvenile wordplay about a popular general plays right into the hands of one’s political opponents.

      That said, Congressional resolutions condemning unpopular but protected speech by private groups are disgraceful. They’re contemptuous of free speech, the people’s business, the American citizenry, and in this case the military personnel in harm’s way who are paid lip service instead of having their commanders held to account for endangering them in ill-conceived or ill-executed operations. We’d turf our Congressmen out for being such buffoons if we didn’t have such a broken OODA loop.

      Like

    • 11 November 2012 12:18 pm

      Duncan, thanks for mentioning this. I had missed this little drama. Here is HOUSE RESOLUTION 644 passed on 10 September 2007 by unanious vote:

      Reaffirming the commitment of the House of Representatives to respecting the independent and professional reputation of General David H. Petraeus and all members of the United States Armed Forces serving in good standing in the defense of the United States.

      • Whereas General David H. Petraeus was confirmed by a unanimous vote of 81-0 in the Senate on January 26, 2007, to be the Commander of the Multi-National Forces–Iraq;
      • Whereas General David H. Petraeus assumed command of the Multi-National Forces–Iraq on February 10, 2007;
      • Whereas General David H. Petraeus previously served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as the Commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command–Iraq, as the Commander of the NATO Training Mission–Iraq, and as Commander of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) during the first year of combat operations in Iraq;
      • Whereas General David H. Petraeus has received numerous awards and distinctions during his career, including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Defense Superior Service Medal, four awards of the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star Medal for valor, the State Department Superior Honor Award, the NATO Meritorious Service Medal, and the Gold Award of the Iraqi Order of the Date Palm; and
      • Whereas the leadership of the majority party in both the House of Representatives and the Senate implored the American people and Members of Congress early in January 2007 to listen to the generals on the ground:

      Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the House of Representatives —

      1. recognizes the service of General David H. Petraeus, as well as all other members of the Armed Forces serving in good standing, in the defense of the United States and the personal sacrifices made by General Petraeus and his family, and other members of the Armed Forces and their families, to serve with distinction and honor;
      2. commits to judge the merits of the sworn testimony of General David H. Petraeus without prejudice or personal bias, including refraining from unwarranted personal attacks;
      3. condemns in the strongest possible terms the personal attacks made by the advocacy group MoveOn.org impugning the integrity and professionalism of General David H. Petraeus;
      4. honors all members of the Armed Forces and civilian personnel serving in harm’s way, as well as their families; and
      5. pledges to move forward on all policy debate regarding the war in Iraq with the solemn respect and the commitment to intellectual integrity that the sacrifices of these members of the Armed Forces and civilian personnel deserve.

      Like

  4. William Leach permalink
    11 November 2012 9:09 am

    David Petraeus gives ample reason to be doubtful about the health of our Republic.

    What does his career say about the efficacy of our Armed Forces leadership? What lasting damage could he, or men like him, have done to the security of this country, or to the saftey of those tasked to ensure it?

    Is the current state of civilian military relations a healthy one? Are the leaders we elect in control of the leaders we dont? If so, why have they failed to hold people accountable, and why have they not be held accountable for that failure?

    These questions lead me to wonder about the health of our culture. We have our models for teaching, promoting, managing and leading. But are they working? Are models and dogma, doctrine and orthodoxy the problem? Do we value whats truly valuable in people, and do we value people enough?

    Within this maze of questions, I do not think we can see past the uncertainties in order to plot a safe course. Besides, we have to much momentum and to little rudder to change course effectively.

    There is hope. That which can not adapt will not. As things break down, we need to let them. Rather than duct taping closed, rigid systems together we can embrace decentralized, agile, alternatives. Lean organizations empower people, and people power is under rated as well as dorky sounding (conditioned prejudice?)

    For this to happen we must learn to accept the we do not control everything, and we must embrace variety.

    The hard part will be unlearning our lack of confidence and getting a handle on our approval addictions. The easy part will be starting small. If people matter, then treating people with kindness and respect would be a good place to start.

    Like

  5. 11 November 2012 9:55 pm

    It appears that Petraeus had the big realization he was being a naughty boy only once it became clear that it was going to become public. To me, that doesn’t show someone understands “morality” it shows the understand “caught with hand in cookie jar.”

    Why adultery is considered a crime is beyond me. Marriage should not be The State’s purview – let it return to being a religious observance and cultural phenomenon (so that if an adulterer was a member of a church that stones adulterers, they could negotiate that particular issue, and an adulterer who’s an atheist can sort if out among their friends) Why does this have to be society’s problem at all?

    There’s probably a joke in here about “hearts and minds” but I’m not going to search for it.

    Like

    • 11 November 2012 10:00 pm

      “Why adultery is considered a crime is beyond me.”

      I don’t know if it was a crime for General P. However, it was a violation of his terms of employment. Stephen Walt explains at FP:

      FP colleague Tom Ricks wonders why CIA director David Petraeus had to resign in the wake of revelations that he had an extramarital affair with his biographer. In fact, the reason is quite straightforward, and independent of any questions about his judgment, or the security of his email account.

      In the world of intelligence, extramarital dalliances are dangerous because they create the obvious potential for blackmail. If some foreign intel service found out that a mid-level intelligence analyst or operative was cheating, they might be able to extract sensitive information by threatening to disclose the indiscretion.

      Obviously, if the director were caught in a similar indiscretion but remained in his post, it would send exactly the wrong message to the rest of the organization. Petraeus clearly understood that, which is why he was correct to submit his resignation.

      Like

  6. 11 November 2012 9:57 pm

    FP: “Now we enter the next (but perhaps not the last) act in the Petraeus story”

    Anyone want to bet he’ll become a commentator on Fox News?

    Like

    • 11 November 2012 10:03 pm

      Tom Ricks at FP: “the administration’s loss may be Princeton’s gain.” I assume he implies that Pretaeus will follow Ike’s career path, becoming a university President. After that, who knows?

      Like

  7. Mr Simon permalink
    12 November 2012 9:58 am

    Perception is reality in this sense surges work since the provide a window to flee what are militarily unsolvable conflicts, the best possible politically palatable outcome. As for the CIA it is yielding better results albeit compared to previous lows.

    Like

    • 12 November 2012 1:50 pm

      As always, how we see these things depends on one’s contexts!

      (1) “Perception is reality in this sense surges work since the provide a window to flee what are militarily unsolvable conflicts”

      That’s an interesting definition of “work”. Especially for the thousands (tens of thousands, looking at both sides plus civilians) crippled and killed during the resulting unneccesary fighting. I assume you believe its politically unfeasable to statie the truth about the “militarily unsolvable conflict” and acting appropriately. If so, why?

      (2) “the best possible politically palatable outcome. As for the CIA it is yielding better results albeit compared to previous lows.”

      Pretaeus has led to the CIA to performance better than previous “lows” = success? Wow, that’s an interesting standard of performance.

      Like

  8. Tom Ricks asks why we're not "Questioning the Brass" permalink
    12 November 2012 2:26 pm

    Questioning the Brass” by Tom Ricks (Center for a New American Security), op-ed in the New York Times, 12 November 2012 — Opening:

    OVER the last 11 years, as we fought an unnecessary war in Iraq and an unnecessarily long one in Afghanistan, the civilian American leadership has been thoroughly — and justly — criticized for showing poor judgment and lacking strategies for victory. But even as those conflicts dragged on, our uniformed leaders have escaped almost any scrutiny from the public.

    Our generals actually bear much of the blame for the mistakes in the wars. They especially failed to understand the conflicts they were fighting — and then failed to adjust their strategies to the situations they faced so that they might fight more effectively.

    Even now, as our wars wind down, the errors of our generals continue to escape public investigation, or even much internal review. As the Vietnam War drew to an end, the Army carried out a soul-searching study of the state of its officer corps. To my knowledge, no such no-holds-barred examination is under way now. Instead, the military’s internal analyses continue to laud the Pentagon’s top brass while placing almost all of the blame for what went wrong in our wars on civilian leaders.

    As Paul Yingling, a recently retired Army colonel, noted during some of the darkest days of the Iraq war, a private who loses his rifle is punished more than a general who loses his part of a war.

    In the past, Congressional oversight hearings might have produced some evidence that challenged the military’s self-satisfied conclusions. But today, politicians are so fearful of being accused of “criticizing our troops” that they fail to scrutinize the performance of those who lead them.

    In the meantime, too many important questions remain unanswered. …

    Like

  9. 12 November 2012 2:57 pm

    Brilliant analysis by Bernard Finel (Assoc Prof, National War College): “The Real Sin in the Petraeus Case”.

    Please read it in full. Especially note the conclusion, qute familar to readers of this website:

    Worse, Petraeus’ legacy on civil-military relations is likely to endure. He showed how easy it is for a military leader to act as a policy maker, to wage a deliberate campaign of manipulation and propaganda against the American public.

    Petraeus’ conduct since 2004 has been profoundly anti-democratic. He’s been a cancer on civil-military relations. My main hope now is that instead of focusing on salacious details, we can instead shine a harsh light on the “age of Petraeus” and its destructive legacy.

    Like

  10. 13 November 2012 2:48 pm

    The bottom line about Petraeus by Douglas Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired), from “Fall of the House of Petraeus?“, Kelley B. Vlahos, 13 November 2012:

    How does an officer with no personal experience of direct fire combat in Panama or Desert Storm become a division [commander] in 2003, a man who shamelessly reinforced whatever dumb idea his superior advanced regardless of its impact on soldiers, let alone the nation, a man who served repeatedly as a sycophantic aide de camp, military assistant and executive officer to four stars get so far? How does the same man who balked at closing with and destroying the enemy in 2003 in front of Baghdad agree to sacrifice more than a thousand American lives and destroy thousands of others installing Iranian national power in Baghdad with a surge that many in and out of uniform warned against? Then, how does this same man repeat the self-defeating tactics one more time in Afghanistan?

    The answer is simple: Petraeus was always a useful fool in the Leninist sense for his political superiors — [Paul] Wolfowitz, [Donald] Rumsfeld, and [Bob] Gates. And that is precisely how history will judge him.

    Like

  11. robnaardin permalink
    15 November 2012 4:34 am

    What can we learn about ourselves from the career of General Petraeus?

    As PT Barnum used to say: There’s a sucker born every minute.
    Did it take a genius to figure out “The surge is a success” was Bush/Cheney kicking the Iraq can down the road.

    Like

  12. David Davis permalink
    18 November 2012 3:17 pm

    The military has covered up for more than this guy. It is the old buddy system in operation and everyone gets caught up in it. Let’s face it this guy is no more a deceiver and liar than anyone else and yes that even includes the President. We elected our officials to cover up anything and everything that is detrimental to their positions and who they are. Quit screwing with them or they will start another war or two and this time maybe take your kids with the draft thats coming.

    Like

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