What Can We Learn About Ourselves from the Career of General Petreaus?

November 14th, 2012
in Op Ed

by Fabius Maximus,

Summary: Any leader both reflects and magnifies his followers. That’s doubly so for a star in trouble times like ours. we can learn much about America, about ourselves, from the ascent and crash of General Petraeus. This brief note recaps his career and draws one lesson. Note your conclusions in the comment!

Historians might use the career of General Petraeus as a microcosm of our America. Our most lionized General is a familiar figure in military history: dashing appearance, charismatic, skillful bureaucratic warfare and public relations — but usually wrong on the battlefield.

The best known in our history is George  McClellan (who ran against Lincoln in 1864; Tom Ricks sees him at the 6th worst general in US history).

As Tom Engelhard shows in ”Petraeus, Falling Upwards — The Petraeus Story“ (TomDispatch, 30 April 2008), Petraeus record is largely one of military failure.  His early days in Iraq, the COIN manual (now largely discredited), the mostly fake “Iraq Surge” success, the doomed from the start Afghanistan “surge” — Petraeus pops like a milestone along the road of our disastrous wars.

Follow up:

The difference between McClellan and Petraeus is that 19th century American’s made excuses for McClellan’s failures — but saw Petraeus’ failures as successes. An early example of this — our eagerness to be fooled — was in the Petraeus-Crocker hearing: see Congress shows us how our new government works (14 April 2008).  Institutional failure all around.

Now we enter the next (but perhaps not the last) act in the Petraeus story, the sad applause for this sad episode in this interesting man’s life: “Petraeus scandal is reported with compelled veneration of all things military“, Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian, 10 November 2012 — “The reverence for the former CIA Director is part of a wider religious-like worship of the national security state.”

We can run a tentative scorecard for the wars marking the general’s career, in which he was a key player.

  • The Iraq war has ended in almost total failure for the US, as our expenditure of blood and money produced few or no gains for America.
  • The Afghanistan War nears its end, after 26 years (starting the clock with our provision of Stingers to the Mujahideen.
  • Most recently he re-tasked the already defective intelligence resources of the CIA, turning it even more thoroughly into a paramilitary force.  Petraeus’ contribution to closing America’s eyes.

Some future historians will grow famous investigating his career. Perhaps our children will learn from it, and avoid our mistakes.  Too bad we cannot learn from our own experiences.

For More Information

About the “surge” in Iraq:

Articles about FM 3-24 – the COIN manual:

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1 comment

  1. Frank Li (Member) Email says :

    Well done!

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