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Petraeus Was a Disaster: Enough with Glorifying Failed Military Generals

Generals run amuck, politicians who could care less and an embedded media are not a good formula for accountability.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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Few things have characterized the post-9/11 American world more than our worshipful embrace of our generals. They’ve become our heroes, our sports stars, and our celebrities all rolled into one. We can’t stop  gushing about them. Even after his recent  fall from grace, General David Petraeus was still being celebrated by CNN as the best American general  since Dwight D. Eisenhower (and let’s not forget that Ike commanded the largest amphibious invasion in history and held a fractious coalition together in a total war against Nazi Germany). Before  his fall from grace, Afghan War Commander General Stanley McChrystal was similarly lauded as  one tough customer, a sort of  superman-saint.

Petraeus and McChrystal crashed and burned for the same underlying reason: hubris. McChrystal became cocky and his staff  contemptuous of civilian authority; Petraeus came to think he really could have it all, the super-secret job and the super-sexy mistress. An ideal of selfless service devolved into self-indulgent preening in a wider American culture all-too-eager to raise its star generals into the pantheon of Caesars and Napoleons, and its troops into the halls of Valhalla.

The English used to say of American troops in World War II that they were “overpaid, over-sexed, and over here.” Now we’re overhyped, oversold, and over there, wherever “there” might happen to be in a constantly shifting, perpetual war on terror.

In our particular drama, generals may well be the actors who strut and fret their hour upon the stage, but their directors are the national security complex and associated politicians, their producers the military-industrial complex’s corporate handlers, and their agents a  war-junky media. And we, the audience in the cheap seats, must take some responsibility as well. Even when our military adventures spiral down after a promising opening week, the enthusiastic applause the American public has offered to our celebrity military adventurers and the lack of pressure on the politicians who choose to fund them only serve to keep bullets flying and  troops dying.

It’s Not That Generals Suck, It’s That We Suck Up to Them

Recent scandals involving some of our top brass have one virtue: they’ve encouraged a smidgeon of debate on things military.  The main problem isn’t that our generals suck, though one might indeed come to that conclusion after reading two recent high-profile articles. In the  New York Times, Lucian Truscott IV dismissed General Petraeus and similar “strutting military peacocks” as  phony heroes in phony wars. What we need, he suggested, is not “imitation generals” like Petraeus, but ruthless nail-spitters like his grandfather, General Lucian K. Truscott Jr., of World War II fame.

Tom Ricks, formerly the  Washington Post’s chief military columnist and himself a fan of Petraeus, was more circumspect if no less critical. In  a probing article in the Atlantic, based on his new book,  The Generals, he argued that the U.S. military has failed to reward virtuosity and punish deficiency.  Combine an undiscriminating command structure that gives every general a gold star with their constant rotation in and out of command billets and you have a recipe for “a shocking degree of mediocrity” among the Army’s top leaders. 

Such criticism comes as welcome relief after nearly a decade worth of  hagiography that marched into our lives alongside Petraeus (once known sardonically among some Army colleagues as  “King David” or in the media as the one man who could  “save” Iraq) and McChrystal (a “one of a kind,” “battle-hardened”  Spartan ascetic, according to a  glowing 60 Minutesprofile in September 2009). But it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

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