DAVE PETRAEUS HAS ALWAYS TREATED ME VERY DECENTLY, SO I HATE WHAT THE MAN MUST BE GOING THROUGH. HE DESERVES BETTER.
I first met Dave back in the early Nineties when he was commanding a brigade in the 82nd Airborne Division. At the time I was researching THE DEVIL’S FOOTPRINT and, as luck would have it, his brigade exec, LTC Tony Tata, was tasked to be my guide and mentor (and a pretty good job he did too).
One evening, in the nearly deserted Officer’s Club in Fort Bragg, Tony explained to me the notion that U.S. Army officers were held to a higher standard because they considered themselves the guardians of a higher set a values than those of the public at large; and, given that code, sexual misbehavior was just plain unacceptable.
I recall being somewhat incredulous, both because I thought it presumptuous of the Army Officer Corps to regard itself as superior, and because I tend to regard ones sexual proclivities and conduct as a private matter unless they intrude on another in an aggressive way—rape being the obvious example.
Tony held his ground so I returned to my hotel in a state of mild shock—and rather glad I was civilian. I also thought what I had heard was ridiculous. Human nature is human nature, and will not be stopped; and much the same can be said about infidelity. But, then again, I’m a European—and Irish at that—and as everyone knows we are a degenerate lot. That said, I am biased towards the view that there is a great deal to be said for tolerance.
Even at that time Dave had quite a reputation, and I well remember the commanding general, a rather marvelous man called George Crocker—a major general at that time—singing Dave’s praises because he not only been on a night exercise, but he had turned up for the morning run, and subsequent duties, as if he had had a solid night’s sleep—instead of having having to parachute into the darkness.
Subsequently, I either met Dave, or talked to him on the phone, on a number of occasions, partly because General Jack Keane, his mentor, fostered our relationship, and partly because I rather liked the man. On the one hand, some of his peers considered him to be overly ambitious, if not downright opportunistic, but I found him to be thoughtful, intelligent and personally pleasant—so I dismissed such criticisms. Besides, it was hard to encounter an Army officer who wasn’t ambitious to a fault—the lure of a star being seemingly irresistible; and careerism being endemic to the culture.
Subsequently, Dave edited a book of mine, GETTING TO KNOW THE WARFIGHTERS, an action I deeply appreciated. His immortal words after that session—scarcely a trivial task—were: “Victor, have you ever heard of the comma?” As a consequence, not only do I pay more attention to punctuation these days, but I have even discovered the semi-colon! In short, Dave furthered my writing education. Given my passion for my craft, I took that most kindly. However, I will admit to relief that he did not invite me to go running. David is a physical fitness fanatic—despite being shot once, and having his back injured when his parachute failed to open properly. This is not a trivial man.
What is not generally known—although it needs to be—is that for some time the U.S. Army has had a problem with its generals. The reasons for that are something I will write about some other time, but if you need evidence to support that statement, look no further than the conduct of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. This is not to say that all our generals are useless—a few are exceptionally talented—but more to make the basic point that the general officer corps as a whole is weak, and that we could well have been in much more serious trouble but for a small group of extremely talented officers—arguably best epitomized by General Dave Petraeus.
This isn’t to say that he did everything perfectly, or that the final results of Iraq and Afghanistan will be even close to what we would wish, but more to say he took on a very difficult situation in Iraq and achieved a better result than anyone at the time thought possible; and he more than did his duty in Afghanistan despite considerable political constraints. But both were, and remain, impossible situations which we should never have become involved in in the first place.
It therefore saddens me greatly to see someone who has served his country with such talent and fidelity—both in the Army and subsequently—brought low by such a normal and common human failing as having an affair. Good grief! We should cut the man some slack. Yes, of course he was a damn fool—and his wife deserves our sympathy—but Dave deserves our thanks for his service, not our criticism for an all too common human failing.
I hope President Obama has the good sense and the compassion to haul General David Petraeus back into public service—and soon. Talent, such as his, is in exceedingly short supply, and if it is true that one learns more from one’s mistakes than one’s successes, then Dave be should formidable indeed by the time he recovers.
Meanwhile, the man deserves some understanding, a chance to rest, and peace.