Infatuation and the US Army

To a large extent Petraeus, four star general and chief spy, was a political and media invention. Take a closer look at the Petraeus record and a spectre starts to appear: of just how blind love can be.

Robert Matthews
10 December 2012

 As the dust settles on US military star General David Petraeus' extra-marital affair and resignation as CIA director, the episode is still cloaked in some mystery. Unanswered questions remain regarding his striking lack of good judgment, the manner and timing of the probe into the affair after being accidentally stumbled upon by the FBI, and how exactly the public embarrassment widened to envelope US General John R. Allen, head of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Allen's nomination as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) within NATO is now on hold as the Pentagon’s Inspector General investigates his careless internet dalliances with a married woman.

The woman at the centre of the furore, Paula Broadwell, is a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point and a lieutenant colonel in the US Army Reserves. Broadwell contrived to gain intimate access to the general and write (with the help of a Washington Post journalist) a worshipful, as-told-to account of Petraeus’ military career. Her book might have been sub-titled “A Perfect Valentine for the Perfect General” (comedian Jon Stewart noted that the only controversy in the book seems to be “whether Petraeus is awesome or incredibly awesome”). Broadwell, by then, was infatuated with the general and capped her adventure by becoming his mistress for a time. 

When her book appeared, Broadwell was feted by the media as a military celebrity.  That she was a gung-ho fitness fanatic and moonlighted as a model for a machine gun manufacturer seemed to add to her allure among the US public, and converted her into a kind of poster-girl for a military-conscious nation.  Visibly awe-struck interlocutors fawned over Broadwell on her tour to sell her paean to Petraeus—as uncritical of her book as she was of Petraeus. Even a progressive like Jon Stewart seemed a bit in awe of Petraeus and his biographer as he accepted Broadwell’s challenge to a public push-up contest. 

A very post-9/11 affair

The incident and its ongoing ramifications reflect the level of military chauvinism which has emerged since 9-11, embedding itself in US society and shadowing its politics for the past decade.  President George W. Bush’s military response to terrorism enhanced both the military’s role in foreign affairs and its image inside the US. Even Senator John Kerry in his 2004 bid for the presidency, despite running as an alternative to the unilateralism and force projection of George W. Bush, never directly criticized the military operation in Iraq. During the campaign he felt the need to underscore his service in Vietnam and suppress his later emphatic opposition to that war.  He memorably opened his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination by declaring “I am John Kerry and I am reporting for duty”, and then punctuated it with a military salute.

The budget of the US military has continued to grow under Obama and stands today at nearly 700 billion, up from 270 billion in 2000, and equal to the combined total of the military budgets of the next highest fifteen countries in the world. As of this year the total direct and indirect cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been approximately $3.7 trillion.  With a weakened global economic presence, its GDP about to be overtaken by that of China, and a decline in its political and diplomatic clout, the US still clings to its superpower’s military might – a hammer which Washington has swung across the globe, all too often seeing every problem as a nail.

Obama's military

Some aspects of Bush’s militaristic world view seemed to be on autopilot after Obama’s election in 2008. This was evident in his re-directing military efforts to Afghanistan and his massive reliance on unpiloted drones to target and kill suspected terrorists. Except for ignoring the military’s advice not to establish a timeframe for withdrawal, Obama has generally bought the military’s argument that US-led war in Afghanistan is a necessary defence of US security. He continued and intensified counterinsurgency operations, upping the ante with a 33,000 troop surge. To be sure, some of the military coordinates were already in place. If he was going to withdraw from Iraq, for domestic political reasons he could not afford to appear anti-military. Obama was undoubtedly also aware that exhibiting a pro-military bias undermines the right’s perennial contention that the commitment of Democrats to national security is dangerously soft.

Obama has made more than his share of military appointments in the areas of foreign policy and national security. Early appointments included Admiral Dennis C. Blair and later, Lt. General James Clapper Jr., as Directors of National Intelligence, and General James L. Jones as National Security Adviser.  Under the Obama administration the first military officer to become US ambassador to Afghanistan was appointed, Lt. General Karl W. Eikenberry.  In his foreign policy “cabinet” were Hilary Clinton and Robert Gates, Secretaries of State and Defence respectively, Vice-President Joe Biden and UN ambassador Susan Rice. In the entire group only Obama and Rice had opposed the war in Iraq.

Petraeus, as a recently active military officer, was barred from becoming Secretary of Defence in a half-century old legislative nod to the tradition of civilian control over the Pentagon, so he was appointed CIA director, one of only two CIA directors in its history to have been a career military man.

The path of Petraeus

To a large extent Petraeus, an acclaimed four-star general and commanding officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, and later the nation’s chief spy, was a political and media invention.  The media search for a positive narrative to cover (and often to promote) these wars ended in Petraeus, his incarnation as military hero, and at times his seeming glorification as a species of demi-god. Washington’s receptions of Petraeus struck some as akin to those received by the conquering generals of Rome. It soon became obvious that this arrangement had produced a convenient and mutually beneficial symbiosis.

However, the general attained his stature, including consideration as a presidential candidate (the US has never hesitated to convert its leading military lights into presidential aspirants), largely by default. His tenure as wartime military leader in both theatres was simply freer from the short-sighted blunders that haunted these operations throughout the early years. Thus, Petraeus was marketed accordingly as a welcome antidote to the fumbling embarrassments characterizing these engagements under the Bush administration.

Petraeus is smart and media-savvy and acquired the trappings of a success that eluded other generals in these misbegotten wars of the last decade. To some, however, he seemed to be single-mindedly focused on creating a place for himself in posterity. He had a reputation of being resented by other officers for his preening self-regard and his cultivation of the media. A beribboned general, his medals were so much a part of his self-image that he wore them on his business suit after he retired from the army.

Take a closer look at the Petraeus record, and his successes as commander in Iraq and Afghanistan appear far from unambiguous. Petraeus had taken charge in Iraq in order to quell the rampant violence with a troop surge and to implement a “new” counterinsurgency strategy. Halting the daily carnage, however, was always seen as a means to the desired end – a successful Iraqi political arrangement to guarantee a sustainable and enduring peace. Indeed, the strategy reduced but did not end the violence, but more importantly, it has not yet produced anything like the anticipated political endgame.

In Afghanistan Petraeus was sent to halt the reversals inflicted by Taliban insurgents on NATO’s military campaign, with a surge similar to that employed in Iraq. The results have fallen short of expectations; the Taliban were bloodied but remain unbowed. Indications are that by 2014 the US and NATO will have left a dangerously unstable Afghanistan bordering on civil war, a deeply corrupt government enjoying ever less legitimacy, and an insurgency in a commanding position to project its power and influence when foreign forces decamp. 

Petraeus’ counterinsurgency (COIN) strategies, ultimately a bundle of basic low-intensity warfare doctrines, were praised uncritically – even when they were having a doubtful impact on the battle for Afghanistan. Despite a media-driven image as a kind of genius of COIN, even his biographer-mistress admitted that he was not a long-term strategist (in love as in war, as they say). Two major factors were underestimated: first, the new dimensions to asymmetrical warfare (countervailing technologies, new weapons and tactics used by insurgents like the deadly roadside bombs, and the devastating application of suicide bombers used as a force multiplier to terrorize the population and demoralize the conventional forces); and second, the power of the nationalist, anti-occupation narrative of the insurgency – aided by the misrule of the government in Kabul.

Measured by original goals both wars are hovering on the edge of failure – a circumstance not yet fully apprehended by the US public, in part as a result of the mythology surrounding the general.

The military's allure

There is strong impressionistic evidence that since 9-11, US popular culture is more attuned to things military than at any time since Vietnam. A visitor away for even a few months in Europe is immediately struck by the extent to which the military permeates the atmosphere here. The Stars and Stripes fly from houses, businesses and gas stations; recruitment posters are pasted on the sides of buses; recruiters target high schools in working class and low-income urban neighbourhoods and in small towns across the country in search of new material for the all-volunteer army; bumper stickers, window decals, yellow ribbons (signalling support for the military) abound.

Television laces its specials and mini-series with military/ intelligence/ security/anti-terrorism themes; movie theatres regularly preface feature films with army recruitment commercials targeting the high school-age audience and of course, run many popular films displaying high-tech gun violence and military exploits. Americans interlard their Facebook pages and blogs with praise for the military, blessings for those in military service and salutes to members of their families serving today. The military is not often seen on the streets but the image of the global sheriff is firmly embedded in contemporary US psychology (and in the politics of the radical right). It is a uniquely American phenomenon and it jars a bit after an American has spent time abroad.

In mid-November Boeing, even though managing a mix of civilian commercial and military businesses, aired a two-minute TV advertisement entirely devoted to hawking its military equipment and aircraft, and adorned the footage with heroic exploits of US soldiers and airmen. Boeing, like many US manufacturers, understands that selling its corporation in terms of its military aspect will go over well with a patriotic, pro-military America. The military-industrial complex, about which President Dwight D. Eisenhower presciently warned the US more than a half century ago, is alive, well and generally good for business.

Although only one per cent of the population is on active duty or in the reserves and national guard, since 1973, when the all-volunteer military was created, over 10 million citizens have seen military service. If we include family members of soldiers, sailors and airmen and women, there are some 30-35 million Americans who form part of a post-1973 military family. This does not include millions of veterans from earlier wars (1941-1975) and their families[1]. Especially as one moves from the cities to small towns and the rural hinterland, the status of the military in local life and the display of military symbolism are in stark contrast to today’s Europe.

Even in city neighbourhoods like Brooklyn, for example, it was difficult to argue against the Iraq and Afghanistan misadventures with local citizens and not find that an anti-war stance conflicted with their loyalties to a family member in the military.

We can expect that at some point the specific circumstances surrounding the fall from grace of a celebrated national military figure and the possible prosecution for malfeasance of the most powerful military commander in Afghanistan will emerge.  But the larger issue of the outsized role of the military in US culture, italicized by the behaviour of the women and generals involved, will continue to command the attention of serious observers well after the affair’s tawdry details become yesterday’s news.

Seeing the spectre

As the embarrassing details emerged the two generals found themselves caught in the jaws of a paradox. A nominal puritanism in US culture makes it dangerous for an army officer to engage in illicit sexual liaisons, and the services impose stiff penalties for adultery and sexual improprieties. At the same time US society's pride in the military is such that it may create a bubble of invulnerability for its lionized leaders. Powerful people sometimes conclude, not unreasonably, that their high positions immunize them and those within their purview from the consequences of breaking the rules. But perhaps the military’s sacrosanct status and exemption from criticism as an institution accentuates this penchant among authority figures and their friends, and may help to explain the rash indiscretions in this case.

To paraphrase an old master of social analysis, a spectre is haunting the US and that spectre is militarism. The coming years will challenge the US self-image as the world’s policeman. There may be some positive fallout from this affair that will help the American people take a harder look at exactly what Petraeus and the US military accomplished. It may allow Obama to hasten the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and to limit future US military involvement in pointless wars. The time may be ripe to reassess the government’s dependency on the military and place it in a supportive rather than a lead role. Obama needs to look beyond military solutions to analyse the complexities of several arcs of instability, including the Middle East, Persian Gulf, South Asia and the Pacific rim. The US hammer is not omnipotent and indeed every problem is not as simple as a nail.


[1] Data courtesy of Prof. J Mittelstadt, Rutgers University

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