Here is all our coverage regarding the legacy of General David Petraeus following his resignation in November 2012. To skip directly to the most popular segment of the discussion, regarding the over-medaling of US servicemembers, click here.
What Is Petraeus’ Legacy?
Michael Hastings gives his take on “King David”:
Petraeus’ crash is more significant than the latest nonsense sex scandal. As President Obama says, our decade of war is coming to an end. The reputations of the men who were intimately involved in these years of foreign misadventure, where we tortured and supported torture, armed death squads, conducted nightly assassinations, killed innocents, and enabled corruption on an unbelievable scale, lie in tatters. McChrystal, Caldwell, and now Petraeus — the era of the celebrity general is over. Everyone is paying for their sins. (And before we should shed too many tears for the plight of King David and his men, remember, they’ll be taken care of with speaking fees and corporate board memberships, rewarded as instant millionaires by the same defense establishment they served so well.) Before Dave fell for Paula, we fell for Dave. He tried to convince us that heroes aren’t human. They are human, like us, and sometimes worse.
I have to say I never bought the Petraeus hype, for a couple of reasons. The first was that he seemed to me to be a bullshitter for his country. His job was to somehow rescue the Iraq catastrophe. He entered the scene just as the Anbar tribes decided they’d had enough of al Qaeda, and as the mass killings were declining due to exhaustion. Yes, Petraeus deserves great credit for noticing this and capitalizing on it – but all the b.s. about counter-insurgency strategy and the intellectual generals’ general … the whole savior-mythology always struck me simply as a way to save face from military defeat. The myth of Petraeus was necessary to restore some semblance of credibility to the US military in the wreckage of the doomed Bush-Cheney wars. And funny how in Afghanistan, all that hug-a-civilian strategy in Iraq was swiftly abandoned by Petraeus himself, as he droned the crap out of al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The second reason was that I got to see him up close at one of those super secret media elite dinners the Atlantic’s David Bradley would hold and foolishly invite me to. I was the usual turd in the punchbowl and kept grilling Petraeus on answers: when would we get out of Iraq? How? Doesn’t real counter-insurgency require decades, i.e. a version of long-term civilizing imperialism? And what about Afghanistan? How could it work there? Wouldn’t it take a century of neo-imperialism? It was clear to me that he wasn’t used to being asked such questions by journalists and the brutal truth was, I came away from the lunch thinking this dude is improvizing like hell and it seems to be working, when nothing did before. So give him his due, but spare me the hagiography.
But more than that, I got a good glimpse of what this man’s skill really was: watching the open jaws and worshipping eyes of the hacks around the table, I could see this man was a superb Washington operator – like Colin Powell without any military victories. To spin the rush to exits in Iraq as a masterful American-led strategy – rather than a mixture of luck, courage, sectarian exhaustion and the Anbar switcheroo – was his greatest achievement. That is not necessarily a criticism of course. Good generals need political support, and need to stroke the press and Congress. But there was something about the journalistic swoon that unnerved me. The acceptance of all his bullshit about the genius of the “surge” – when it quite clearly succeeded in getting us out of there but plainly failed to bring about the national reconciliation it promised – also got under my skin.
Ackerman says an adoring media helped build Petraeus up, and owns up to his share of the blame:
Petraeus recognized that the spirited back-and-forth that journalists like could be a powerful weapon in his arsenal. “His ability to talk to a reporter for 45 minutes, to flow on the record, to background or off-the-record and back, and to say meaningful things and not get outside the lane too much — it was the best I’ve ever seen,” Mansoor reflects. It paid dividends. On the strength of a single tour running the 101st Airborne in Mosul, Newsweek put the relatively unknown general on its cover in 2004 under the headline “Can This Man Save Iraq?“ (It’s the first of three cover stories the magazine wrote about him.) Petraeus’ embrace of counterinsurgency, with its self-congratulatory stylings as an enlightened form of warfare that de-emphasized killing, earned him plaudits as an “intellectual,” unlike those “old-fashioned, gung-ho, blood-and-guts sort of commander[s],” as Time‘s Joe Klein wrote in 2007. This media narrative took hold despite the bloody, close-encounter street fights that characterized Baghdad during the surge.
Another instance of how the “surge” bullshit was sold – even as Petraeus was pounding Afghanistan the old-fashioned way:
On [Tom] Ricks’ blog, [Broadwell] described the complete flattening of a southern Afghan village called Tarok Kolache, confidently asserting that not only was no one killed under 25 tons of U.S. air and artillery strikes, but that the locals appreciated it. Danger Room’s follow-up reporting found that the strikes were even more intense: Two other villages that the Taliban had riddled with bombs, were destroyed as well.
I am yet to be convinced that there was anything of much import in the general’s extra-marital affair – except Broadwell’s lover’s hagiography posing as journalism. It all seems petty and largely irrelevant to me, given what I’ve read so far. Blackmail potential? The fact that Petraeus immediately confessed suggests he would have been impervious to it. Did an affair affect Petraeus’s second major p.r. achievement in losing another war while claiming to win it? Not that I can detect.
But we’ll be out of there soon enough, won’t we? The rest is human.
(Photo: CIA Director David Petraeus, testifies before the US Senate Intelligence Committee during a full committee hearing on ‘World Wide Threats.’ on January 31, 2012 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. By Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)
Euphemism Of The Day
It’s from Michael Gerson:
Petraeus is a generator of national confidence.
The more colloquial version of that is “con-man.” And since Gerson just backed another one for president, one should perhaps forgive his blind spot.
The Real Petraeus Scandal
The militarization of the CIA.
Greenwald sees the FBI investigation that uncovered the affair as proof of “a surveillance state run amok”:
So all based on a handful of rather unremarkable emails sent to a woman fortunate enough to have a friend at the FBI, the FBI traced all of Broadwell’s physical locations, learned of all the accounts she uses, ended up reading all of her emails, investigated the identity of her anonymous lover (who turned out to be Petraeus), and then possibly read his emails as well. They dug around in all of this without any evidence of any real crime – at most, they had a case of “cyber-harassment” more benign than what regularly appears in my email inbox and that of countless of other people – and, in large part, without the need for any warrant from a court.
Quote For The Day
“In an age in which military officers are practically above public reproach – glorified and exalted by politicians and the media – the repeated failures of our military leaders consistently escape analysis and inquiry. This can have serious national security implications. As Joshua Rovner, associate professor of strategy and policy, US Naval War College, said to me in an email conversation, this lack of scrutiny has had grave consequences:
‘[W]e have misunderstood our recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan; we have created new myths about strategy that will persist for many years despite their manifest flaws; and we may make bad decisions about intervening in other civil wars based on these myths.’
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were more than just bad strategy; they reflected poor military tactics and generalship. Self-interested and incomplete interpretations of what happened in Iraq led to predictably disastrous results in Afghanistan. Perhaps we should spend a bit more time looking at that issue, rather who was sleeping with whom,” – Michael Cohen, The Guardian.
What Is Petraeus’ Legacy? Ctd
A reader writes:
I’m a little tired of the fawning over General Petraeus and I appreciate your reluctance to anoint this man the savior of Iraq, Afghanistan and America in general. This is anecdotal, but I wanted to share a soldier’s experience with this man.
I was in Iraq from 2009-10. Yes, the war was obviously winding down, but soldiers were still dying in Iraq and of course in Afghanistan. It was a usual night when we got the task. We were asked to set up a direct video feed (I worked in public affairs and broadcasting) to an event in Washington, DC. We weren’t sure exactly what it was for, but we naturally obliged the command. Well, turns out it was a black tie Gala in honor of none other than General Petraeus. There he was, schmoozing with some yuppie DC folks while we were in the desert. The entire event was in his honor. He had requested soldiers in Iraq “be apart of the event.” This included us sitting in some chairs and the screens in DC eventually panned to us and the crowd cheered. We shut it down and, I assume, the event continued.
I couldn’t believe it happened. During a time of war, a 4-star has a black-tie event in HIS honor? We all walked away shaking our heads.
Quote For The Day
“Observe the process by which we remove some of the most essential American figures of the last century for having failed to corral their sexual organs in the marital bedroom: Roosevelt, gone. Eisenhower, gone. Kennedy, gone. Lyndon Johnson, gone. Clinton, gone. Martin Luther King, Jr., gone. Edward Murrow, gone. Follow the gamboling penis to an arid expanse of sociopolitical wasteland, where many of the greatest visionaries and actors can never tred, a desert in which the Calvin Coolidges and Richard Nixons stand as the tallest totems. Anyone who looks at the history of mankind and thinks that private sexual fidelity exists in direct proportion to political greatness or moral leadership is either a chump or a liar,” – David Simon, on the Petraeus affair.
Obama Meep-Meeps The Generals?
A reader writes:
Reading the accounts, especially the detailed ones in the NYT, in the background another narrative emerges in the Petraeus-Allen saga, one which is getting much less attention. That is how Obama is dealing systematically with the highly politicized military brass that was one of the seedier legacies of the Bush years.
The GOP loved to tout the glories of the military leaders it created, and to trot them out like so many sock puppets to embrace the GOP defense strategy of the moment. We must all fall in line behind our generals and pay them homage – we can’t have a discussion about it. The generals have spoken. Now silence.
Of course, the generals, being generals, were merely doing the bidding of their civilian Pentagon masters. It may be that such glorification of military power is a natural part of right-wing politics. But it bears some real dangers for democracy, precisely because it short-circuits democratic dialogue and process and elevates the role of career military over elected and accountable officials.
As Tom Ricks points out, quite compellingly, in the first chapters of his new book, The Generals, what we have witnessed since Vietnam is a slow, steady, deconstruction of accountability mechanisms for the military that reached its high point under Bush. Now one of the distinguishing features of Obama is his subtle, skillful reversal of these precedents – in a way which was at once non-confrontational and beneath the radar of political Washington. The Petraeus case is an excellent example – he was denied the post he most cherished (chair of the JCS) and instead given CIA. But he was required to set aside his uniform and give up his entourage of 50 (amazing!) who followed him in his final appointments. He was denied “special” access to the White House and the president while he ran CENTCOM and Afghanistan. He and other generals were told to treat the chain of command seriously.
Obama also has become the biggest general slayer since Harry S. Truman. He fired Stanley McChrystal and now David Petraeus, the man who flogged rumors about his own suitability for high political office. I don’t see anything remotely Machiavellian about this. It was all rigorously application of good governance principles and rules of command authority. But the result we are now coasting towards is an unwinding of the distortions introduced by Bush and a restoration of America’s historic notions of civilian-military relations – under which the generals are to be kept firmly out of politics and clearly accountable to elected civilian authority.
This may well be one of Obama’s major legacies. And no one is talking about it in the Beltway chatter room, which is intent on giving us another episode of The Real Housewives of Tampa. By contrast, I bet most of the brass understands what Obama is up to, and most of them are approving, even as they express regrets about the fall of Petraeus and McChrystal.
The Medals They Carried
A reader writes:
You observed that so many journalists stand in the presence of men like Petraeus with “open jaws and worshipping eyes.” That brings to mind the military’s cultural shift in its medals, ribbons, and badges.
Consider these portraits of Generals Petraeus and Eisenhower. Petraeus is wearing over 30 ribbons and badges on his uniform. I’m sure he earned each of them. But of that 30, how many civilians will notice that only one item was for heroism (Bronze Star with “V”)? Eisenhower earned only ten U.S. decorations (plus countless foreign ones), and – as was the custom of the day – typically wore only three or four at a time.
So few of us have military experience. We see a solider decked out with all kinds of razz-mataz and we assume he’s a modern Audie Murphy, a Rambo ten times over. But the truth is, most accoutrements merely denote successful completion of an assignment, or time spent overseas – not necessarily in combat. Servicemembers can even earn a ribbon for volunteerism in their personal lives.
Too many in America stand in awe of the military partly because the awards and decorations system has become so inflated. We used to hesitate to adorn soldiers with ribbons, medals, and the like – it smacked of European symbols of nobility. The pendulum has swung too far toward over-recognition of service. We ought to chasten ourselves, put the brakes on this ridiculous, clown-like boastfulness where every troop looks like a Libyan field marshal. But with so many of us slack-jawed at the sight of a soldier, who among us has the political courage to scale back on the excess that creates this over-adulation of the soldier in the first place?
A reader writes:
Yes, yes, yes! And I thought I was the only one who felt this way. I’ve been in the military 19 years and could – if I choose and in some cases, if allowed – wear 23 ribbons and five devices. I don’t. I’m what I like to call a Top Three kind of guy; I only wear my top three ribbons. It always felt pretentious and self-aggrandizing to wear anything more. Many in the military look more like Third World dictators than servants of the people. It’s just an embarrassment to see and I wish I could change that part of the system.
I hope you continue to discuss this culture of blown-up decorations in the military, but I want to add that this is not how the average soldier or officer sees their own role in the institution. Rather, this is how political men act within the military.
My father had a successful career as an Army Ranger but still to this day refuses to wear his dress blues, as did my grandfather, an Army general. There is a political culture in the military that, to outsiders, seems to be honorable and patriotic. But this culture does not represent all those who serve honorably, just the politicians who seek to bask in it.
Another great perspective from a soldier:
I wish I could say that the reader commenting on the medals was completely and utterly wrong, but I can’t. The truth of the matter is many of the medals awarded to servicemembers are based on a job well done, not valor or meritorious service. In the six years I spent in the Army, six of the medals awarded to me were for exactly that: going above and beyond the call of duty to get a job done.
My Army Service ribbon was for making it out of Basic Training in one piece; my NCO Professional Development ribbon was for making it out of Primary Leadership Development in one piece. However, The National Defense Medal, The Southwest Asia Medal, and the Liberation of Kuwait medals on my uniform were for serving in Desert Storm. I’d have earned those whether I made it out in one piece or not.
There has been talk about tightening up the standards for awarding non-valor medals among the services before, for the exact reasons the reader is citing. The American military, especially in the officer ranks, look pretty ostentatious compared to their European counterparts once all the spaghetti is out on the dress uniform.
That said though: see those stripes on Petraeus’s right sleeve? Each one of those equals six months spent on overseas duty. With all due respect, the reader needs to remember that while some of those medals on the general’s chest are there for doing a job well, others are there because the general did that job overseas in a war zone while insurgents and enemy combatants tried to kill him.
Give servicemembers their medals. They earn them in the service of their country.
One of many readers to make this connection:
The first person who came to mind when I saw the portrait of General Petraeus was Leonid Brezhnev. (It’s a close race for medals, but Brezhnev beats Petraeus in the eyebrow department.)
(Photo: A man looks at a caricature depicting Russian Premier Vladimir Putin as Leonid Brezhnev on his computer screen in Moscow on October 5, 2011. By Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)
One more reader:
That post immediately made me think of a classic scene from the criminally under-rated I’m Gonna Get You Sucka:
A reader sends the above image:
This portrait of Marshal Zhukov is a good illustration of earning your ostentatious medals. This is how many you get for winning the Eastern Front.
A reader quotes another:
Give servicemembers their medals. They earn them in the service of their country.
As a Marine infantryman who served three tours in Iraq, I say: This is such a typical resort to jingoistic emotional appeal, devoid of any thought or meaning, that would not fly in a discussion about anything but military service. Notice how he refers to his award for graduating from Army basic training. It’s essentially an award for being in the Army. At. All.
Below I rate nine awards I’ve received. Before the invasion of Iraq, I would have been expected to leave the Marine Corps with two in four years – three if I got a Navy Achievement Medal for some fantastic job during a training event. Here’s my breakdown in order of precedence from highest to lowest:
Combat Action Ribbon: Officially, this is for taking fire and returning fire in kind. When I was awarded the ribbon, division commanders were given discretion to award the ribbon as they saw fit. I rated the CAR the moment another company in my battalion was mortared so far ahead in the convoy that I didn’t even hear the explosion (although in the following deployment I did directly participate in numerous engagements).
Presidential Unit Citation: This is a “good job” to my entire unit from George Bush for participating in the invasion. To my knowledge, most units that invaded Iraq were awarded this irrespective of the details of their efforts.
Meritorious Unit Citation: After I graduated from boot camp, I was placed on “recruiter’s assistance” in my hometown because the instructors at the School of Infantry, where I was next scheduled to go, were all on Christmas leave. The recruiting unit was given this award for some distinction I was never made aware of and didn’t contribute to.
Good Conduct Medal: I went my first three years without being subject to formal disciplinary measures.
National Defense Service Medal: I served in the military during a time of National Service designated by George Bush. This one is for being in the military at all from 9/11/01 to a future date TBA.
Iraq Campaign Medal with four stars: For three tours in Iraq. In any capacity.
Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal: For participating in the invasion of Iraq. In any capacity.
Global War on Terrorism Service Medal: This is for being in a unit that somehow contributes to the “war” effort. Even if it never deploys. It’s slightly more exclusive than the National Defense Service Medal.
Sea Service Deployment Ribbon with two stars: For three overseas deployments. My deployments were all to fight in Iraq, but I’d have been awarded the same for three stints in Okinawa.
Marines in my unit who performed some exceptional act might be awarded Navy Achievement Medal, or a Navy Commendation Medal, or a Bronze Star. Lots of Purple Hearts floating around too. But that’s a ribbon or two on top of the stack of fruit salad we all wear on our dress uniforms. And the Marine Corps tends to be stingier than other branches in awarding medals and ribbons.
Anecdotally, the personal awards are subject to inflation, both generally as the wars have dragged on, and toward higher rank. By the end of my enlistment, Navy Achievement Medals tended to be awarded for acts that would merely have elicited a “nice work” from one’s superior when I entered the Marine Corps five years earlier. Also, a company or battalion commander might be awarded a bronze star for his collective actions throughout an entire deployment – essentially for being a good manager – while a private or lance corporal could not hope to receive such an award without charging into a hail of enemy gunfire (and even then it’d be up in the air).
Readers continue the popular thread:
I’m an officer in the Army National Guard, and I’ve enjoyed your posts on the ridiculousness of ribbon racks in the Army. I’m a junior officer, and I’ve never cared about ribbons. But I’m an extreme minority. Aside from just ribbons and medals, officers are expected to win foreign awards to wear on their dress uniform. Petraeus famously wore Italian paratrooper wings. The more common award is the German Armed Forces Badge of Military Proficiency, which most junior officers are expected to obtain within the first year of service. You might remember one from the Obama speech on the Afghan surge at West Point – the gray uniforms awkwardly propping up this giant German eagle, all in the name of swag.
After reading the Marine’s description of the actions required to receive a medal in today’s military, it suddenly became clear: this is today’s “everyone is unique and special!” culture permeating the services. My children, now in their mid-20s, received participation trophies for playing on sports teams that finished way back in the rankings; plaques for diving in swim meets regardless of where they placed individually or as a team; and their elementary school teachers awarded blue ribbon stickers and “Great job!” stickers quite routinely – even on assignments that didn’t make the grade. It would make sense that those children, when they entered the military, would feel medals for participating in any capacity are perfectly correct.
Another adds, “And just like rewarding a kid for simply showing up rather than rewarding him or her for a real achievement (like winning), it diminishes the very point of the reward.” Another reader has a great story:
In the mid-1990s, I was living in St. Petersburg, Russia. During their celebrations for the 50th anniversary of V-E day, ships from all over the world sailed in to take part – including at least one US Navy ship. I acted as an unofficial translator when Russian and American sailors went out for drinks together, and we got to discussing medals and citations.
The US sailors had many more decorations – ribbons and medals – than their Russian counterparts. And the most amusing snippet of conversation came when I tried to translate what one US sailor’s decorations were for. I didn’t know the word for “conduct,” so I described his good conduct ribbon as being for “good behavior.” The Russian sailor looked at me like I had three heads. “Good behavior?” he asked. “What is this, kindergarten? Or the navy?”
(Cartoon from Terminal Lance, an illustrated blog by Lance Corporal Maximilian Uriarte, USMC)
More servicemembers respond to our popular thread:
Promotion to sergeant and to staff sergeant is based on a points system. One of the categories is Awards and Decorations, for which a soldier will earn a certain number of points for each award or badge that he or she wears. This system encourages leaders to find a reason to recommend someone for an award, when a reason may not be obvious (and if it’s not obvious, is it really awards-worthy?).
When I was enlisted, I was awarded five Army Achievement Medals, one Army Commendation Medal and one Meritorious Service Medal. All of that in a six-year enlistment, without a deployment. Why? Because my superiors wanted to see me get promoted. But as a result, I have a number of relatively meaningless awards.
In a refreshing break from the norm, some soldiers have elected NOT to wear all of the awards and decorations that they’re authorized. For example, look at this photo of Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs GEN Martin Dempsey, wearing just two rows of ribbons on his uniform.
I was deployed on the USS TRUMAN in 2010, working for an F/A-18 squadron. One of the pilots from my squadron was flying around the ship at night and spotted a ship on fire. He reported it and a helicopter was dispatched, resulting in nine Iranian fishermen being rescued. It was a a great thing to do, no doubt about it. But then every single person who was involved with the rescue, from the Hornet pilot, the helo crew, the medical personnel who took care of the fishermen, the translators and even the cooks who cooked for the fishermen got a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (NAM). Every single one. We joked that the Hornet pilot got a medal for seeing a fire at night in the middle of the ocean.
I’ve been in the Navy for about five years and have recieved more than my share of medals. I already have two NAMs, but only one of which I’m proud (ie I did something worth mentioning). My first NAM was for not getting fired at my first job, basically, and when I leave my current command, I’m going to get another for the same reason.
My grandfather served as a radio technician in the Air Force in the ’50s. While staitioned in Alaska, he was the only person to hear a faint distress call from a town whose generator had broken and who was running out of food and water. He reported it and the town was saved. In today’s military, he would have gotten a big award for just doing his job. Back then, they offered him the equivalent of a certificate saying “Good job!” and he turned it down, as he was just doing his job.
I agree that there seems to be an over-abundance of medals and awards, and yes, they can be awarded for something that happens off-duty. I share a few of the ones worn on General Patraeus’ chest, having served two tours in the Middle East. However, I will say this; most don’t boast. And they aren’t really for the public anyway. We don’t wear these for you. We wear these for our brothers and sisters-in-arms.
Think of this way; at your job, if you meet performance expectations, and/or exceed them, you receive a bonus, be it monetary or otherwise. We have similar expectations, but unlike you, cannot be awarded any such gift for this or even a heroic act. You get a set of golf-clubs for 10 years at your job, I get a ribbon. I care what that ribbon means, like you would be proud of your golf clubs mean. What some people call boastfulness is a snapshot of our career on our chest.
I’m a civilian, and for a long time, my concept of the medals on a soldier’s chest was that the soldier earned them in combat by going above and beyond. Then I started writing a short story and needed some detail about a ribbon on a soldier’s uniform. It was a bit of a revelation.
The one that stuck with me was the Antarctica service medal. You get it for being in Antarctica. If you spend a winter there, you get a device to pin to it. Two or three winters and the color of the little pin changes.
No doubt, Antarctica is a tough assignment. But it’s not a war zone and might not require any braver action than surviving the cold. My suspicion is that it mostly involves ferrying supplies to scientific outposts. It’s very important and probably dangerous, but it’s dangerous because of the weather, primarily, not because there’s terrorists in Antarctica.
I suspect most civilians assume, like I did, that all those medals mean tremendous acts of bravery. A lot of them, like your Marine reader points out, are for showing up. It’s like a soldier’s service record in ribbon form. A soldier’s superiors need to know he was in Antarctica. It probably helps them figure out who has the necessary experience for some assignment. Likewise, knowing that a soldier was in a combat area is important for health care providers should he need mental health care down the road.
But most of us in the civilian world don’t know what all those little colorful things mean, and we make assumptions. We don’t know that one of those is for not getting in trouble for a certain number of years, so we assume it’s for doing something awesome.
The worst of it is, I suspect Petraeus and generals like him know that those of us outside the military don’t have a clue what all those things mean, and they know we look at them and assume they must be amazing soldiers. And they may be, but not all those medals really tell that story.