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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Pershing, Eisenhower and Petraeus

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.]


Unknown said...

I agree with you completely but there has to be something else going on here. 98% of the people don't even know who Petraeus is. Why bring the affair up? Who would care (besides his family of course)?

Steve P said...

Nice piece, David.

Anonymous said...

How thingas have changed now that we are all living in glass houses due to the TV and internet. Also we have to admit that women's rights have demolished men's extramarital affairs as "a concidental event of no import". I recall several people Jimmy Swagggart, Jum Bakker, etc. having similar affairs made public and having to beg their TV audiences forgiveness. Is uppose even such preachers would have gotten away with it in the times when women's place was in the home, public authority was respected and personal privacy had some meaning (I saw a recent report on a Canadian teenage suicide who had been cybermobberd to death over her breasts). I can sum it all up in one phrase - "familiarity breeds contempt".

Anonymous said...

am sympathetic to the spirit of this article and how intrusive and judgmental the media, modern technology, and our current culture can be. However, I am not ready to apologize to GEN Petraeus nor to Ms. Broadwell for their "bad luck" in living in our current society. In today's military, this is Leadership 101 - don't sleep with subordinates and don't commit adultery (a UCMJ offense - I am assuming the affair began while GEN Petraeus was on active duty). While Ms. Broadwell was technically not a subordinate, she might as well have been since she repeatedly called him a mentor. Additionally, Ms. Broadwell built a professional reputation largely as a result of her "fawning" book on GEN Petraeus and her access to him. She was trying to be taken seriously as an academic and this seriously undermines her professional reputation. It also doesn't look good for GEN Petraeus to have someone he is sleeping with to be on the talk show circuit masquerading as an academic but in reality is merely an advocate. Some say it's too much to ask for a leader to be faithful and not have affairs. The reason it is not too much to ask is because that leader's subordinates are being asked to do the same thing. I have seen adultery charged on enlisted men and officers and fraternization punished at all levels of the chain of command. Like or not, these are the rules of the game today. A game that has rewarded GEN Petraeus and Ms. Broadwell quite handsomely until now.

CrocodileChuck said...

A surprising post, especially considering the source.

1) in the entire history of intelligence, from Lord Walsingham under Queen Elizabeth, through to Tallmadge under George Washington, up to the British in WWII, and the various disasters and blunders of the CIA since 1950, there has never been a resignation of an intelligence chief for matters so indiscreet.
2) What if the woman involved, Paula Broadwell, WAS a spy? See the 1987 film, 'No Way Out', to illustrate this hypothetical. If this was the case, would you still argue for forgiving Petraeus?
3) If the affair began in Kabul, how in the world was Petraeus approved for the DCI role in the first place? Because he had successfully passed a polygraph test administered years before when he went to Iraq? This is extremely shoddy tradecraft vis a vis screening for the most important intelligence role in the Western World.
4) Last, from his marriage to the daughter of West Point's superintendent, to his flattering of Joint Chiefs and Congressmen, General Petraeus' arc to the top of the Army has been enabled by sycophancy. It is both ironic and fitting that he was undone by a fawning, unctuous sycophant of even greater ambition.
UPSHOT: The Agency is feeble and tottering from the cumulative blows and damage it has borne since William Casey in the early '80's through to the more recent embarrassments in the runup to the Iraq invasion. Leaving a weakened, compromised Petreaeus in the role would have made it, and him, a laughingstock. At least he did the right thing by submitting his resignation.

CrocodileChuck said...

Apology for cutting a long post into two.

Last, General Petraeus must be the only person in the USA's intelligence community naive enough to believe that a free webmail account is secure.

Bruce Wilder said...

Attributing more good than harm to Petraeus's public service seems a bit gratuitous, (especially given the costly and ambiguous outcomes and the casualty counts), and undermines the central argument in a telling way. I am in no way privy to the insider politics, but I can well imagine Obama might be relieved, to have an excuse to ditch this man, who made himself so powerful on the back of rehabilitating and prolonging Bush's misguided policies.

This is a country that enacted Prohibition, and then had to jail Al Capone on income tax evasion. Collectively, it is true that the nation's relationship with morality, piety and hypocrisy is . . . opportunistic. Lots of people, including Petraeus notably, cannot quite work out why torture is wrong. Obama cannot work out why, as President, he shouldn't have the authority to murder people by remote control. If we could find ways to hold powerful people accountable for the damage they do in their day jobs, I might be more sympathetic to the idea that they should be more protected in their private lives.

But, that's not the world we live in. Having the powerful fall, for sexual peccadillos may be the closest we can come, during the twilight of empire, to remembering the concept of accountability and consequences for the elite.

With the legalization of gay marriage spreading and the Kardashians as reality show stars, I don't think we are rolling back the sexual revolution. This Petraeus resignation isn't the consequence of popular outrage, or backward popular thinking.

This is a late-breaking consequence of Obama keeping Team Bush on the job. Now, if he could get something on Bernanke . . .

Unknown said...

Sexual mores in the US were established at the founding by the fundamentalist nature of the predominant religious sects. Americans, as compared to Europeans for example, retain this sexual repression in form, but ever increasingly less so in behavior. It is, as you have pointed out, our national, traditional hypocrisy.
General Petraeus knows about tasks, conditions and standards. Most military failures result from an inaccurate or incomplete assessment of the conditions under which a standard military operation must be conducted. It is more than probable that he accurately assessed the consequences of his affair should the scandal-mongering press discover it. Those were the conditions consequent of his entirely human decision to have sex outside his marriage. This elevated risk, of course, heightened the enjoyment of the experience; once again, entirely human.
Your contention that Petraeus should not have suffered the consequences of his actions, even given the sensitivity of his position in the US intelligence community, is attractive because Petraeus is such a talented, accomplished figure. Too bad to lose his potential for such a common, petty reason. But, as they say, "you pays your money, you takes your chances."
From Pershing to Petraeus, the task and standard remained constant; but as often happens, the conditions changed. Market conditions led our national press to emphasize entertainment over journalism, and nothing sells like sex.
It wasn't the press, or the President that caused this loss of a great public servant, it was Petraeus himself that did that.

Unknown said...

Professor, I have to disagree with your assessment. General Patraeus himself asked to be allowed to resign, because apparently he possesses moral intelligence and knew all along that his behavior was unacceptable...by his own standards. The fact that these incidences have occurred in the past is NO EXCUSE for them to be allowed to continue or be swept under the rug. I feel sorry for the General's wife and children. He knew better.

Unknown said...

In Sex in the Forbidden Zone (1992), psychiatrist Peter Rutter explains why mentoring relationships often become sexual. Whenever we find ourselves in a close association in which great things are achieved—as between student-professor, minister-parishioner, psychiatrist-patient, commander-biographer—irrepressible fantasies of sexual union intrude because sex isn’t just a physical act. Sexual union exists in our minds as a powerful symbol of what it means to be fully alive, and is inextricably linked in our brains with our efforts on behalf of valued achievement. Disarming the trigger with humor and magnanimity is the honorable path, but an extremely difficult one because the mechanism is intoxicating and compelling, and we mistake our feelings for love, the way Broadwell apparently has. But, in fact, we’re in the grip of a delusion that can have the destructive force of a tsunami. Even if the affair remains secret, it wreaks havoc with our judgment, sense of dignity, and, sadly, usually destroys the productive relationship that was vital to the student, patient, biographer etc. One can see in Broadwell’s abusive emails the possibility the affair left her unhinged. That the head of the CIA could imagine there’s such a thing as a private email testifies to an affair’s befuddling influence. What has happened is tragic, but rather than merely lamenting it, let’s appreciate what it teaches us about the confusion our complex psyches can cause, and broadcast our knowledge in the hope of reducing the burden of grief and pain sex in the forbidden zone engenders.

Bozon said...


Great stuff.

So few Americans would have thought it proper to state such a relatively level headed position (within the larger scheme of American politics), even if they had the background knowledge to articulate it.

I especially enjoyed the counter factual thesis advisor willingness remark.

All the best,

Mark said...

Pershing was a widower when he went to Europe as AEF commander.

Zosima said...

We don’t have all the facts yet. But we do know this: Two of our highest level commanders just got shot down days after an election that many expected to go the other way. And since we live in an age of conspiracy, indulge me.

Has an elaborate cover story has been concocted to protect the psyche of the American people from what just happened behind the scenes? Were right-wing general officers unable to accept the result of a democratic election? Or perhaps something counterintuitive, did these officers refuse to go along with some soon to be launched conflict with Iran? Since Vietnam, the civilian leadership seems more hawkish that the military leadership. When Seven Days In May was made, people feared the military leadership, after Bush, it might be wiser to fear the civilian leadership. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s great fun. Here’s the whole thing on YouTube:


Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

Am I alone in seeing Petraeus as a convenient fall guy for Benghazi?

Here is the administration's position as presented by UN Ambassador and putative SecState Susan Rice: “When discussing the attacks against our facilities in Benghazi, I relied solely and squarely on the information provided to me by the intelligence community.” The implication here is that intelligence was asleep at the switch, or otherwise horizontally occupied.

Seems like an elegant if disturbing fix, no?

With respect and affection,

Jude Hammerle