John J. Pershing, born in 1860, rose through the ranks of the tiny American Army around the turn of the century. In 1909, when he was almost 40, he married Frances Warren, the daughter of a powerful Senator, and they had several children. In 1915 she and three of the children died in a fire. In 1916 he led an expedition into Mexico chasing Pancho Villa. In 1917 President Wilson made him the commander of the American Expeditionary Force in France. Pershing built a large American Army at an extraordinary speed and helped the allies defeat Germany in the fall of 1918. Meanwhile, while in France, he carried on an affair with a wealthy married socialite named Louise Cromwell Brooks. According to at least one account, she wanted both to get a divorce and marry him, but he declined. "Marrying you," he reportedly said, "would be like buying a book for some one else to read." Brooks, who evidently liked men in uniform, got her divorce and retaliated a few years later by wedding the Army's youngest general, Douglas MacArthur. They separated after five years and eventually divorced. Pershing became the only six-star general in the history of the U.S. Military, a rank he was given to put him on the same level as European field marshals. He lived into the 1940s and his personal life was never allowed to stain his public reputation.
Dwight Eisenhower, born in 1890, appeared destined for an undistinguished military career after he graduated from West Point in 1915 and completely missed the First World War in France. He married Mamie Dowd, whom he met stationed in Texas, and whose family was in no position to help his career. He might well have remained obscure had not General George Marshall, the Chief of Staff from 1939 until the end of the Second World War, marked him down as a bright young officer suited to high command. Shortly after Pearl Harbor Eisenhower became chief of the War Plans Division, the nerve center of the Army, and within months he had been appointed commander of the planned landing in North Africa. During the war, by many accounts, he fell in love with his driver, an Australian woman named Kay Summersby. Some have claimed that Ike wanted to get a divorce and marry her when the war was over, but that in any event did not take place. The press never breathed a word of the matter, and Eisenhower became President of Columbia, the first commander of NATO, and a very effective President of the United States. After his death Summersby described their relationship in a memoir but discreetly claimed that it had remained chaste.
David Petraeus was born in 1952 in upstate New York and entered West Point in the same year that I enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves, 1970. At no time in American history has a military career been held in lower repute than at that moment, and Petraeus graduated in 1974 and entered a force plagued by indiscipline and drug use. He was both a star athlete and an academic standout at West Point and in his thirties the Army sent him to Princeton to earn a Ph.D. His thesis, which I have read, examined the Army's response to the Vietnam War, which consisted, he concluded, in a determination to avoid any similar counterinsurgency effort at all costs. He ended the thesis prophetically, however, arguing that sooner or later the Army would be drawn into a counterinsurgency--and he intended to be ready for that moment. Meanwhile, he, like Pershing, had married adantageously, to the daughter of the Superintendent of West Point while he was a cadet. They have been married ever since.
Petraeus, of course, became the commander in Iraq three years into the war there, when things were going very badly, and managed with a mix of political and military moves to quiet things down and establish the Maliki government securely. To be quite frank, while Petraeus was a very fine general who inspired those who worked with him, I never felt that he would rank with Grant, Marshall, Eisenhower or Ridgway, because he never came to grips with the fundamental long-term problem of counterinsurgency efforts. He proved that US forces could quiet things down in Iraq, but I don't believe that he ever faced up to the difficulty of leaving a stable political order behind--something which in fact we have not been able to do. He was confident that the Iraqis would want to keep American forces around because they needed us, but he turned out to be mistaken The same problem of achieving long-term stability is probably going to doom, in the medium and long term, the further efforts that he undertook in Afghanistan. After serving as CENTCOM commander, he accepted a demotion to take over Afghanistan again after General Stanley McChrystal was relieved of command. Then he became director of the CIA.
This week General Petraeus had to tell President Obama that he had been having an extramarital affair with a married woman with two children, Paula Broadwell, who has recently published a biography of him. She spent time in Kabul while doing so, suggesting that their affair, like Pershing's with Cromwell and Eisenhower's with Summersby, might well have begun in a combat zone. It is easy to see what drew them together: she is also a West Point graduate who has an Ivy League degree, and they are both fitness nuts. They are also human. These things happen.
I once wrote a long post here about the German Chancellor Bernhard von Bulow, who did so much to delay the First World War as chancellor from 1899 to 1909. He commented repeatedly that he thought he could see the world more clearly than most of his German contemporaries because he was a diplomat who had spent so much time overseas. I seem to see many things differently from my contemporaries because I've been reading history since I was seven years old, and comparing the present to the past. There is no difference--none--between Petraeus's indiscretion and that of Eisenhower and many other military and civilian leaders that I could name. There is no reason, in a sane world, why his behavior should have any more impact on his life, family and career than theirs did. But Petraeus is now ending his career in disgrace and his name will be forever tarnished--not because of what he did, but because in the last thirty years the media has arrogated itself the right to investigate the lives of public figures and ruin them for extramarital affairs. We have even had a President impeached for a sexual indiscretion (and please don't waste my time with comments that it was about lying, not sex-we all know better.) This is not a sign of increasing maturity, but of decreasing maturity. We will never again have effective leadership in this country if we can't accept that leaders are human beings, that they do jobs most of us would never have the courage even to attempt, and that their personal lives are their own business.
Official Washington, it seems, has now internalized the values propagated by the media. Some press reports suggest that the scandal broke after it accidentally came to the attention of the FBI. I know how this would have been handled fifty years ago, in the days of J. Edgar Hoover. The information would have gone right to him, and he would have passed it discreetly to Petraeus and the President. The General would have modified his behavior accordingly so as to avoid further embarrassment, the President might (or might not) have had a brief talk with him about it, and Hoover would put them both on his list of people he would be able to rely on for help and support in the future. I preferred living in that America to this one.
Let me conclude with a few words addressed to President Obama and then to General Petraeus himself, neither of whom I have ever met.
President Obama, may I say that I am sorry that you once again took the path of least resistance and decided, after a night's reflection, to accept the general's resignation. The American people--myself among them--had just voted to give you another chance. You did not see fit to do the same for a subordinate, one of the few inherited from the Bush Administration who had chosen to work for you as well. That, like your decisions not to break up the big banks, not to let the Bush tax cuts expire two years ago, and to keep Guantanamo open, was an example of your predilection for the obvious course of action.
General Petraeus, please accept my apology as a citizen of the United States for the penalty you have paid for serving our country at a high level in these troubled times. I am not self-righteous enough to hold your personal life against you. As far as I'm concerned, you were a fine man, general, and public servant yesterday, you still are today, and you still will be, or could be tomorrow. I didn't always agree with your decisions, but they were your responsibility, not mine, and you undoubtedly accomplished far more good than harm. You are now suffering from a national fit of self-righteousness that is unbecoming to our nation. I hope that it will pass and that in the long run you will retain the esteem you have earned from your fellow citizens. And for what it's worth, I would have been honored to advise your excellent thesis.
[The author served in the Army reserves from 1970 to 1976 and taught as a professor at the Naval War College from 1990 until 2012. He is currently a visiting professor at Williams College.]