David Petraeus: a personality cult with a zipper problem
Many saw Petraeus as a future president. But the truth is he was overrated – and not just by Paula Broadwell
GENERAL David Petraeus's downfall is not about sex or adultery - it's about hero worship. The easygoing inhabitants of a Californian swinger commune will feel as let down by his behaviour as a devoutly Lutheran farming family in the Midwest with a boy serving in Afghanistan.
It is difficult for the English to understand the place generals have in the American psyche.
We have produced few of the very first rank – the Dukes of Marlborough and Wellington had the skill to out-manoeuvre and then beat a superior enemy. As did the airbrushed-out-of-history trio of Campbell, Outram and Havelock who suppressed the Indian Mutiny with such pitiless and improvisatory brilliance.
The First World War, our greatest national military effort ever, gave rise to the idea of lions led by donkeys. The only general produced in Second World War who could actually organise the defeat of a serious enemy without a massive logistical and numerical advantage was the ex-schoolmaster and Indian Army officer, Bill Slim.
But the whole United States enterprise owes its existence to the superior generalship of George Washington. A man of great skill on the battlefield and huge domestic virtue off it, he was the first of 11 generals to ascend to the US presidency.
Which is why the fall from grace of General David Petraeus has come as such a shock. Many saw him as a future president. Hero of Iraq, hero of Afghanistan, soldier-scholar, balm to America's wounded pride post 9/11, the family man who married his West Point sweetheart (daughter of the Academy's Superintendent) and was famously contemptuous of other officers who succumbed to the fleshly delights of Washington, director of the Central Intelligence Agency... he has been caught 'hiding the salami' with an easy-on-the-eye defence academic, Paula Broadwell.
Broadwell got cosy with Petraeus while putting together a breathlessly hagiographic biography of him - appropriately entitled All In – the Education of David Petraeus - while 'embedded' in his headquarters in Afghanistan.
The bad loser wing of the Republican party are trying to concoct a political scandal out of it - the FBI didn't apparently inform President Obama until after election day of Petraeus's extra-marital activities.
But the truth is Petraeus is overrated and Obama probably knew that all along. The general's supporters suggest that he was the man who stabilised Iraq with clear thinking and decisive action on counter-insurgency – a kind of American Field Marshal Templer. Others would say that Petraeus merely rebranded a mainstream Iraqi Sunni reaction against al-Qaeda as his own success, and then cleverly redefined what winning meant – placing the win/lose calculation off the balance sheet.
President Obama does not have much to thank him for. Petraeus was the prime mover behind the US military surge in Afghanistan, which inviolved increasing the number of troops on the ground temporarily with the aim of a permanent effect which - surprise, surprise - hasn't happened.
Obama needs to get a grip of the military - quickly. America's top generals have got carried away. Few, if any, of them have ever been in serious harm's way. They are too young to have soldiered in Vietnam and too old to have been involved in carrying arms in what we have come to call the Wars of 9/11.
Military glory can corrupt but is usually kept in check by memories of the horrors of war. The hum of an ice-cold air-conditioner and the honeyed words of a star-struck biographer are no substitute for the soundtrack of heavy machine guns and the screaming of the wounded.
There are plenty of other American generals further down the list to replace Petraeus and his successor in Afghanistan, General John Allen, who is also peripherally implicated in the scandal and now has little hope of being confirmed by the US Senate as Supreme Allied Commander Europe, despite the president's luke-warm support.
Obama should consider only those who have actually done some fighting.
American soldiers have served their country since 9/11 in the most difficult circumstances - nearly 7,000 have been killed in action. Every day and night in thousands of personal struggles against fear and fatigue they have put duty and honour above personal comfort and safety - just as they did at Valley Forge, Gettysburg (both sides), Belleau Wood, Utah Beach, Iwo Jima and Khe Sanh.
They deserve better than Petraeus - just a personality cult with a zipper problem.