Dexter Filkins: General Principles ... How Good Was David Petraeus?
Dexter Filkins joined The New Yorker in January of 2011.
In the Roman conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar led his legions into battle wearing a flowing red cape. The cape made him more likely to be killed but easier for his men to see; it served as a reminder of his fearlessness. John Bell Hood, one of the Confederacy’s most audacious commanders, had his left arm shattered at Gettysburg, and lost his right leg at Chickamauga; from then on, he rode into battle tied to his horse. Even in the Second World War, when senior officers had it easier than their predecessors, General Dwight Eisenhower was so consumed by the job that he smoked four packs of cigarettes and drank fifteen cups of coffee a day.
Nowadays, most general officers, at least most American ones, do not see combat. They don’t fire their weapons, and they don’t get killed; for the most part, they don’t even smoke. In wars without front lines, American generals tend to stay inside fortified bases, where they plan missions and brief political leaders via secure video teleconferences. Their credentials are measured as much by their graduate degrees as by the medals on their dress uniforms. They are, for the most part, deeply conventional men, who rose to the top of the military hierarchy by following orders and suppressing subversive thoughts.
In recent years, the most esteemed officer in America—the very model of the modern general—was David Petraeus, whose public image combined the theorizing of the new school with a patina of old-fashioned toughness and rectitude. Before a sex scandal forced him to step down as the director of the C.I.A., a few weeks ago, he was widely regarded by politicians and journalists as a brilliant thinker and leader, the man who saved America in Iraq and might work a similar miracle in Afghanistan. Roger Ailes suggested, perhaps less than half in jest, that Petraeus run for President. Now many of the same people are calling into question not just his ethics but his basic ideas and achievements. History often forgives military leaders for small scandals, if they are successful enough. Eisenhower’s long-alleged affair with Kay Summersby has not much tarnished his reputation as an officer; even Hood, whose late campaigns were disastrous, is remembered as a paragon of bravery, if not of good planning. Will Petraeus be thought of, in time, as a hero guilty of no more than a distracting foible? Or as the general most responsible for two disastrous wars?..
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