The fall of Petraeus

The general and CIA director was idolised by Americans. His national army of fans feel horribly betrayed.

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

17 November 2012

9:00 AM

In the middle of a breaking news story, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell sounded like she was about to cry. Something had happened to the CIA director David Petraeus — but what? Andrea ticked off his accomplishments one by one, the phrase ‘personal tragedy’ echoing ominously over the airwaves.

For the love of Mike, was he in a coma? Dead? It took a few more painful moments of this boilerplate obituary and Mitchell’s palpable grief for it to sink in: ‘King David’ had done something bad — an extramarital affair! — for which he apparently took responsibility, and so he had immediately resigned his post.

Over the next days, the scandal spread. General John Allen was at it too, allegedly, sending ‘potentially inappropriate’ emails. Two women emerged from the flurry of news, the jezebels who’d led our brave generals astray: Petraeus’s biographer, Paula Broadwell, and a socialite from Tampa, Jill Kelley. David and Paula had had an affair, but then Paula had become jealous of Jill, who had been flirting with John… Suddenly the whole chain of command started to look like a bad soap opera.

It’s difficult to explain to a British reader how much America has worshipped Petraeus. After Friday’s news, the media was in mourning. Black clouds passed over the sun and the birds refused to sing. The sycophantic press rushed to remind us of his past glories, talking of the man’s incredible ‘popularity’ among the troops, his heroism, his intellectual vigour and genius. A parade of pundits referred to Petraeus’s resignation as ‘terribly sad,’ a ‘tragedy’, and I even heard a few blurt out ‘sacrifice’, as though he was climbing up onto the cross.


US senators were wandering around dazed and confused on Friday. Dianne Feinstein, acting like she had just discovered that her favourite teen dream idol was a crackhead, talked about the news as being a ‘lightning bolt’ to the system, and a ‘heartbreak’. ‘I would have stood up for him,’ Feinstein declared, ever loyal. ‘I wanted him to continue.’ Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, always on point, issued a brief talisman of a statement for Petraeus, harking back to the good old days when the General helped to sell the war on which McCain and other hawks had staked their political lives.

‘General David Petraeus will stand in the ranks of America’s greatest military heroes,’ he bloviated. ‘His inspirational leadership and his genius were directly responsible after years of failure for the success of the surge in Iraq.’ As the dust continued to settle on Monday, it was clear that Petraeus’s disciples weren’t going to let his reputation go without a fight. His followers on and off Capitol Hill have effectively connected his resignation to the upcoming Benghazi hearings, and all manner of conspiracy theories abound — the greatest being that he was somehow framed by the administration in order to keep him from testifying. This is such a popular theory that there have been calls to investigate the FBI for investigating Petraeus.

So who is the real Petraeus? Now, at least, good questions are being asked about the rise of the man they called ‘P4’. (A reference to his four-star general status). How did an officer with no personal experience of direct fire combat in Panama or Desert Storm become a division commander in 2003? Why did we promote a man who just shamelessly reinforced whatever dumb idea his superior advanced, regardless of its impact on soldiers, let alone the nation? How did a man who served repeatedly as a sycophantic aide de camp, military assistant and executive officer progress so far? Many in and out of uniform warned against the famous ‘surge’, which in the end did nothing but provide cover for our retreat from Iraq. How was it that this same man repeated the same self-defeating tactics in Afghanistan?

There were plenty of people who had warned that Petraeus was a fraud from the start, a politically-driven, class-A narcissist. But it is becoming clear that the public was protected from the real Petraeus by his now infamous ‘inner circle’: neoconservative think-tankers, fawning scholars, court scribes, and officer acolytes like the ill-fated Gen. Stanley McChrystal and John Nagl. Also, of course, his future paramour and biographer, Paula Broadwell. All of these played some role in overstating the impact and brilliance of the surge in Iraq, and of the COIN (counterinsurgency) doctrine.

As time went by, P4’s fans rose through the ranks and became ever more influential. They created an atmosphere in which David Petraeus was the Don Draper of the Pentagon, a general who reporters would leap out like hellcats to defend.

One of the most interesting effects of the last few days is that the cult of Petraeus is finally beginning to unravel. Journalists are admitting they were duped, sucked in along with the rest of the courtiers and counter-insurgency ‘experts’ perpetuating the positive war narrative. Wired’s Spencer Ackerman probably offered the most poignant and honest lament in this regard, in an article called ‘How I Was Drawn Into the Cult of David Petraeus’. Ackerman was never one of the greatest offenders. Still, he suggests that Petraeus and his staff were masters at handling the press, whose subtle methods played upon reporters’ thirst for access and their unabashed awe (and sense of inferiority) in the military milieu, which resulted in unquestioning write-ups.

‘To be clear,’ writes Ackerman, ‘none of this was the old quid pro quo of access for positive coverage. It worked more subtly than that: the more I interacted with his staff, the more persuasive their points seemed. Nor did I write anything I didn’t believe or couldn’t back up — but in retrospect, I was insufficiently critical. Another irony that Petraeus’s downfall reveals is that some of us who egotistically thought our coverage of Petraeus and counterinsurgency was so sophisticated were perpetuating myths without fully realising it.’

But what does the whole saga say about the American public? Well, at first blush, I’d say we deserved every single second of this painful, tawdry realisation. We’ve turned into such a pathetic plastic consumer culture that we bought a pathetic plastic story of a hero-general and then expected great things from him. We looked away when Petraeus did not perform — even made excuses for him (it was all President Obama’s fault). Even now, after his admission that he cheated on his wife of 37 years with a married woman and mother of two young sons, we will continue to make excuses, because it will make us feel better about what suckers we’ve all become.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com

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Show comments
  • Loudon Cleary

    American Security and Defence, brought to you by Jerry Springer.

  • farah d

    What utter rubbish. Sounds like the loveletter of a heartbroken 13 year old. So the man is flawed and has a roving cock? And what? Bathsheba had a lot to answer for in the court of King David, that would have been a braver article. The women, wives, lovers, are not blameless in this mess

  • barryobarma


  • lbeagle

    So you don’t care for him, then?

  • Baron

    Vlahos, is there another soldier you and your pals at Antiwar.com would like to spit at?

  • Sarah

    Refreshing change to read an article with a female perspective round here. Lucky you got in with the “Jezebel” thing before all the idiot boy commenters could. Though Eddie/Farah still had a little go at Biblical misogyny.

    • Eddie

      Might have known that Manhater Sarah would show up here bleating her own feminist self-pity! Anyone who automatically supports people of one gender over the other in all contexts is frankly a bigot and a sexist – Sarah, in other words.

      If you only want to read articles by silly dizzy girlie hypocrite posters, love, then why not read Spare Rib, Manhater Monthly or any of the many women’s magazines on offer eh?

      Nothing Biblical or misogynistic in anything I posted. I stated that it is IRRELEVANT what a general does with his cock – and so damn what if he has an affair! Worth remembering that he pays for his wife and she would be a nothing without him either – so she should shut up really and stop damaging their kids for her own pity party.
      The man is a soldier – doing that job is better if women are completely out of the picture. The Americans are idiots to make a big deal of this.

  • D B

    I was kind of going along with this until I got to the final line “Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com”

    Enough said.

  • Baron

    and this, to end on a positive note:

    Vlahos at near his best: ” ….. mourning. Black clouds passed over the sun and the birds refused to sing”.

    Listen, young sir, with talent like this, you should give up at the outfit you in, pen a new version of Gone with the Wind, make a serious dime or two.

  • David Moore

    “Why did we promote a man who just shamelessly reinforced whatever dumb idea his superior advanced, regardless of its impact on soldiers, let alone the nation? How did a man who served repeatedly as a sycophantic aide de camp, military assistant and executive officer progress so far?”

    lol, it’s impossible to make general unless your a world class ass licker. To get beyond Capitan you have to have learned to play the game, it’s impossible to advance any other way.

    Just one look at the medals he wears. Not a single one is legitimate, they are all awards for being a bureaucrat. Making your superiors look good, lying and covering things up are the most rewarding activities for a aspiring General, as McChrystal showed.

    The last US General with a new idea, Billy Mitchell, got himself a court-martial for being right.

    • Mike

      Looking at Wikipedia entry for British Lt General Sir Brian Horrocks, who fought in WW1 and 2, he had only 3 rows of medal ribbons. It is difficult to understand how Petraeus has so many medals.

  • OldSlaughter

    I wondered who had written this and the was not surprised when I got to the bottom.

    “Many in and out of uniform warned against the famous ‘surge’, which in the end did nothing but provide cover for our retreat from Iraq.”

    I wonder if those at antiwar.com really think such an enormous reduction in the Iraqi death rate was ‘nothing’. Let alone the battlefield defeat of AQI.

  • Eddie

    Gosh, aren’t the Americans such utter puritans – and hypocrites with it!
    Who give a proverbial if a general or anyone else is having an affair – or shags prostitutes – or goats. Really, who cares? It has NOTHING to do with his ability to do his job.
    Who cares that he ‘cheated on his wife’ – really, it is irrelevant. Can’t help noticing that the USA has the highest divorce rate and highest percentage of teenage mothers in the developed world either – and is the centre of the world multi-billion dolllar porn industry. All whilst being puritan and finger-wagging. How quaint!
    This is where the touchy-feely group-huggy Oprah-fication of the USA leads.
    The Islamists don’;t need to bother detroying the USA – the Americans are doing a pretty good job of it themselves.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robert-Canning/100000880337944 Robert Canning

    “Why did we promote a man who just shamelessly reinforced whatever dumb idea his superior advanced …? How did a man who served repeatedly as a sycophantic aide de camp … progress so far?”. I think you just answered your own question.

  • mikewaller

    A very well written piece. As to why Americans are so mesmerised by generals, could it just be that with no monarchy and a toxic political system, they have to find somebody to whom to look up. If you want to learn about one of the worst of this kind of general, read Alan Wickers wonderful demolition of the appalling General Mark Clark, in “Wicker’s War”, a joy to read in itself.

  • zhujiang

    Shed a tear for good General Petraeus
    The head of the CIAus
    He was the man
    for Afghanistan
    they say he brought order from chaos
    But a broad came along
    and sat on his d**g
    thatus is notus okayus
    It’s nothing so new
    when great men screw
    the women they shouldn’t have oughta
    but what is a surprise
    is the protests and lies
    when they all getta finally caughta
    And so there you have it
    he f***ed like a rabbit
    and tarnished those four shiny stars
    you can’t command tankles
    wiv your pants ’round your ankles
    so you have to compose au revoirs
    Thus it’s goodbye to General Petraeus
    the man whose dickus betrayus
    you’re sure not the firstest,
    and you won’t be the lastest
    and that’s all that I’ve got to sayus

  • http://twitter.com/FarahDamji farah damji

    This is not written or seen through a gendered lense, this is personal disappointment and unresolved issues pissing on ( a trickle, not quite Niagra darling) a modern warrior, through anti-war propogandist rubbish. It’s bemoaning “the poor little wife’s misery” and ourning the fallen institutions of marriage and monogamy.

    Power is still the best sex. You should try it sometime and stop bleating on. Being an apologist for a badly written article such as this which disempowers the women as mere victims or archetypes in a soap opera is not raising the feminist cause.

  • Prinkipo

    How crass and poorly argued. Spectator, how could you allow such opinionated, fact-free bluster onto your pages?

  • jambo

    An excellent piece — thinking outside the usual media bubble. As to all those who think infidelity no biggie, rememebr it’s illegal under US military law!