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Nights of the generals

November 18, 2012 12:10 am

Here's to wives and sweethearts May they never meet.

--Royal Navy toast

LOTS OF LUCK with that in hyper-wired 2012, when a Rangoon fisherman with an iPhone knows your cat Phoebe's favorite canned food. But love isn't just blind, it's often dumb, and when Cupid lets fly an arrow, even the garlanded chief of the CIA, an agency that appreciates the frailty of secrets, isn't immune to its stupefying prick.

Is it your place, or ours, to judge former soldier David Petraeus, the most insightful and effective general officer of the War on Terror before he became a spy master? Perhaps not, but a clinical observation or two may be in order concerning his kamikaze affair with a comely biographer 20 years his junior.

First, the length and nature of Mr. Petraeus' relationship with Paula Broadwell, whose company he regularly kept as she was researching his life, hints of something more elevated than base lust. This was not a case of a president using an intern as a 98.6-degree sex toy. Mr. Petraeus and Mrs. Broadwell, both all grown up, shared a connection beyond the obvious one below the waist. Adultery is, in essence, treason against the family. But there is also such a thing as sexual chemistry. Its reactions are powerful, its gases dizzying--and its violence, given half a chance, can topple all but the stoutest oak.

Yet the trans-libidinal nature of this affair actually made it far worse than what Bill Clinton did. Mr. Petraeus--the leftist scarabs who called him "General Betrayus" for trying to salvage victory in the Iraq War must be snickering--not only broke faith with his wife of 38 years and their two adult children. Count also among the lovers' collateral damage Mrs. Broadwell's husband and their two little boys, 4 and 6. Now does the word "violence" seem mischosen?

The Petraeus scandal is still rippling. Bobbing in its wake is another general, a Marine Corps four-star, John Allen, due next year to command NATO forces in Europe. Gen. Allen exchanged voluminous emails with the Tampa socialite--"The Beautiful and Vivacious" could be part of Jill Kelley's given name--whose complaint to the FBI about Paula Broadwell's alleged cyber threats ricocheted into the heart of Langley. There is no evidence thus far that Gen. Allen misbehaved. But this kind of press doesn't do him any good, either.

Nor does it figure to do the U.S. military any good. At present, the armed forces are the institution Americans trust most. In a Gallup poll in June, 75 percent of respondents expressed "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military--which beat the police by 19 points, the church by 31, and newspapers by 50. During the last 21 years, the military has averaged a Gallup high-confidence rating of over 70 percent, never falling below 60. No other U.S. institution--not even sainted "small business"--can match it.


Yet this is an aberration. For most of the nation's history, the armed forces were unvenerated. Until Blackjack Pershing's troopers chased the American-killing bandit Pancho Villa around Mexico in 1916, the military was seen as a last-resort tool of foreign policy, not as the earthly version of St. Michael the Archangel. But thereafter, notes historian T. Harry Williams, American forces would "move with boldness against the power that was deemed evil." Transferred from individuals to ideologies, this rectifying spirit finally came to ruin in Vietnam. But it has since returned--one pretext for most recent conflicts has been that Tyrant X evilly "murders his own people"--as has popular esteem for America's warriors. But historically the public mood is fragile.

The Petraeus affair is a chip in the china of that mood--as is news that an Airborne general is being tried for sexual assault. Recall, too, that Mr. Petraeus' predecessor in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was sacked for shooting off his mouth to that hallowed martial journal, Rolling Stone. And Gen. Allen is on the bubble. But here's the graver question: Do these sorry doings (admitted or alleged) spring from a culture of non-accountability for dismal professional performance in the highest aeries of the military structure?

In an article titled "The Shocking Decline of Army Leadership" in the current Atlantic, Thomas Ricks notes that while inferior generals were frequently sacked during World War II, in recent decades "relief of generals has become so rare that a private who loses his rifle is now punished more than a general who loses his part of a war."

Mr. Ricks claims, for example, that Gen. Tommy Franks, while able enough leading the invasion of Saddam's Iraq, never foresaw the vicious insurgency aborning or entertained creative ways to damp it. His successor, Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, failed to adapt to the new kind of war. Tens of thousands of Iraqis--and thousands of coalition forces--died in three years of civil strife before Gen. Petraeus arrived with the counterinsurgency antidote. So, were the bumblers cashiered? Hardly. Gen. Franks went on to run U.S. Central Command, while Gen. Sanchez groused in his memoirs that he never received an extra star for his hapless service in Iraq.

In the U.S. Army's general officer corps, writes Mr. Ricks, mediocrities are rewarded for time served, not battlefield outcomes. The recent scandals are bad, but they may signal laxities much worse for the nation.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.