Perhaps the most frequently asked question in the scandal centered on David Petraeus is how anyone so accomplished and so widely regarded as brilliant could have exercised such poor judgment. More troubling is what that might say about the culture that produced him. Besides being tawdry on a personal level, this is also an occasion to rethink what the nation needs, wants and expects from its highest-ranking military officers.
Petraeus resigned earlier this month as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency after acknowledging having engaged in an extramarital affair. A retired four-star general, he had been the top U.S. commander in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The details of this scandal are widely available. In short, the married Petraeus had an affair with his biographer, a married woman and fellow West Point graduate. Their revealing emails were found out after the FBI investigated harassing emails his mistress sent to another woman who in turn had been exchanging what have been called “flirtatious” emails with another general, who may or may not be guilty of anything.
This is, of course, hurtful and dishonest behavior. But what is worse, from a larger perspective, it shows a level of recklessness that suggests a breathtaking sense of entitlement. And that comes at a time when U.S. military leadership is already being questioned.
A Washington Post story says all this “puts four-star general lifestyle under scrutiny.” It tells of how Petraeus once used an escort of 28 police motorcycles to travel across Tampa, Fla., to a social function.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates once lived next to the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gates complained to his wife that their neighbor had a chef, a personal valet and enlisted personnel helping with lawn care.
Throw in personal jets, drivers, guards, “palatial homes” and hefty salaries and the result is what the Post calls “perquisites befitting a billionaire.” And it can add up to trouble. The Post quotes Gates saying, “There is something about a sense of entitlement and of having great power that skews people’s judgement.”
That can spill over beyond a ruined marriage. In a scathing opinion piece in the New York Times, writer Lucian K. Truscott IV calls Petraeus “a phony hero for a phony war.” Truscott, a West Point graduate, son of a career Army officer and grandson of a famous World War II general – all of the same name – says the genius Petraeus displayed in uniform was for self-aggrandizement and playing the press.
Truscott says Petraeus, “transformed himself from an intellectual nerd into a rock-star military man,” and “got so lost among his hangers-on and handlers and roadies and groupies that he finally had his head turned by a West Point babe in a sleeveless top.”
Harsh, but it gets worse. Writing in The Atlantic, Thomas E. Ricks says “a culture of mediocrity has taken hold within the Army’s leadership rank.” Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of several books on the military, makes it clear his complaint is with the top generals, not the troops. American generalship in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, was “too often a tale of ineptitude exacerbated by a wholesale lack of accountability.”
Ricks describes one top U.S. general as the “military version of Donald Trump, both dull and arrogant.” His successor, Ricks says, was “a mediocre officer placed in an impossible situation.”
He details repeated failures by a series of commanders, who suffered no consequences. He contrasts that with World War II in which generals were routinely sacked or demoted for poor leadership and battlefield failures.
The Petraeus scandal can be seen as a joke, a bad soap opera. Or it can be taken as an opportunity for civilian leaders to look into the top level of the U.S. military. The first approach may be more amusing, but the second could save lives.