What can we learn about ourselves from the career of General Petraeus?
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!
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.
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).
For More Information
About the “surge” in Iraq:
- News from the Front: America’s military has mastered 4GW!, 2 September 2007 — The “surge” is little but a media narrative
- “The Price of the Surge”, 17 April 2008
Articles about FM 3-24 – the COIN manual:
- The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24, 19 March 2008
- A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual, 20 March 2008
- Dark origins of the new COIN manual, FM 3-24, 23 March 2008