Petraeus: A loss of real military standards

By Thomas E. Ricks
November 12, 2012

 The sudden departure of General David Petraeus from the CIA probably tells us more about the state of our nation than it does about Petraeus. President Barack Obama should not have accepted his resignation.

We now seem to care more about the sex lives of our leaders than the real lives of our soldiers. We had years of failed generalship in Iraq, for example, yet left those commanders in place. Petraeus’s departure again demonstrates we are strict about intimate behavior, but extraordinarily lax about professional incompetence.

“A private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war,” Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling wrote in the Armed Forces Journal in 2007.

Americans severely judge some forms of private behavior between consenting adults, if one party is a public official. Yet we often resist weighing the professional competence of such officials ‑ even when they clearly are not doing a good job.

This is not, as some say, because we are a puritanical nation. Rather, our standards have changed in recent decades ‑ and not for the better.

Consider, we don’t know precisely the relationship between General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his driver, Kay Summersby, during World War II. But it is evident that it was romantic in some ways, and, by her later account, quite intimate. If Ike were judged by today’s standard, he would have been sent home in disgrace from Europe, and the war likely would have been worse without his calm, determined and unifying presence. He was not fired. But dozens of other Army officers, including 16 division commanders in combat, were relieved of command during the war ‑ for professional reasons.

Matthew Ridgway was another great American general, serving in World War II and Korea. Over a few months in 1951, in one of the best but lesser-known episodes of American generalship, Ridgway turned around our fortunes in the Korean War. Like Ike, Ridgway was fond of female companionship. He almost seemed to get a new wife for every war. In his personal papers on file at the U.S. Army archives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, interspersed with discussions of how to improve combat leadership in the Korean War, there are some terse notes from his first wife’s lawyer.

This change may have occurred in part because we as a nation no longer have much military experience and no longer prize military effectiveness, nor even are capable of judging it. In past wars, soldiers eager to survive would forgive their leaders a multitude of lapses if they believed those leaders knew their business.

We also may have changed because so few of us have “skin in the game,” to use a phrase one often hears from the parents of soldiers. Certainly, if I had a loved one in a combat zone, I would care much more about the military skills of the people in charge than I would about their sexual lives.

Another reason we may also hesitate to judge professional competence is that it is difficult in small, messy, unpopular wars to know just what victory looks like. Yet ironically, in Iraq, Petraeus was one of the few clear successes we had among our top leaders ‑ first in commanding the 101st Airborne Division Mosul in 2003-04, and then as the overseer of “the surge” that began extricating the United States from Iraq in 2007.

Our diminished standards speak to a lack of seriousness in the way we wage our wars. No, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are not existential, as World War II was. But a soldier blown up in Afghanistan this year is every bit as dead as one machine-gunned on Omaha Beach 68 years ago. Today’s soldiers deserve to have the most competent leaders we can provide, just as the men of D-Day did.

Some of my friends in the military argue that a general who cannot keep his marriage vows cannot be trusted to keep his word. But we all fail in different ways throughout life. As Petraeus’s revelations last week reminded us, he is human. We have asked much of him, sending him on three tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Yet when the time came for us to be generous in return, we were not.

I have known Petraeus for about 15 years, and his supposed lover, Paula Broadwell, for a portion of that time. I am not close to either. I do not approve of what they reportedly did. But I also don’t think it is any of my business.

By contrast, taking care of our soldiers should be a concern of all of us. Where are our priorities?

PHOTO: General David Petraeus at a dedication ceremony at Camp Victory in Baghdad, January 31, 2008. REUTERS/Ceerwan Aziz


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Patraeus was CIA, knew the consequences of his actions, may have compromised classified information, and as far as his war record is concerned, I am not impressed. We havent won the “war” in the middle east or on terrorism. Too many military and others coming home with pieces missing or in bags and nothing to show for it. There is no competent leadership.

Posted by duet | Report as abusive

Mr. Rick’s opinion piece is wide of the mark. This is not about the private sex lives of anyone. It’s about the abject absence of any semblance of dignity in the social circles surrounding some of the most powerful military figures in the world, and the odors arising from Ms Kelley’s enterprise which has garnered her the dubious title of “Volunteer Social Liaison with Military Families” for MacDill AFB.

Evidently, Ms Broadwell did send threatening “Leave Him Alone” emails to Ms Kelley but it doesn’t take a fertile imagination to figure out why Broadwell felt compelled to do that – and No!, that was probably not about sex either.

That was about the cloying, clinging, grasping demands from the Kelley circles for the attentions of those ranking officers’ and the sense of power they felt when the officers complied – and the officers complied because of their own weaknesses.

When people who have the power to unleash nuclear weapons indulge themselves in la dolce vita just because it is made available to them, it is time to change command.

Posted by rgarrig | Report as abusive

I don’t agree with the tenet of this article. How come Bill Clinton managed to stay the course with all his peccadilloes and lies?

Posted by metcalfe | Report as abusive

I think the points Ricks makes in his article are important. It’s been nothing but downhill for the Officer Corp since Viet Nam. From great soldiers like Ridgeway we have ended up with guys who suck up and lie in order to get ahead and protect their pensions. Along those lines, remember that Petraeus’ climb to the top began with his courtship of the Superintendent’s daughter at West Point. Nor should we overlook the fact that Mrs Kelley is of Lebanese extraction and was formerly married to a well-placed American official in Iraq. Ricks should rewrite this story after the cooky’s crumbs have finally crumbled.

Posted by Rinaldo36 | Report as abusive

I wholeheartedly agree with the author. What business do we have with the personal lives of our appointed officials? People of talent are hard to find.

Unfortunately, I’m not American.

Posted by JWKGRR | Report as abusive

What military standards? We’ve had massacres of civilians by US troops in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. We have “soldiers” sitting in lounges guiding drones to blow up innocent children. This is not a military–it’s a cold-blooded killing machine. When you take the humanity out of a teenager in boot camp, and turn him/her into a killer, without any repect for life or people, what kind of “standards” do you expect.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

In the “Greatest Generation” this kind of thing would have not come out. Think of MacArthur and his girlfriend in Manila.

As someone with 26 years of military service I would like to say that the war in Afghanistan is starting to resemble a circus, or maybe even Payton Place.

Posted by Cleveland2012 | Report as abusive

This article tells us Americans that if we simply change our public opinion, it will change what is and what is not acceptable behavior for those who lead us. That would not have swayed Gen Patraeus who explained in his farewell letter to his work force he resigned because in his own opinion he did what he knew was wrong—

“…I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours.
…Thank you for your extraordinary service to our country.”

Posted by oregun | Report as abusive

For all of the prestige that comes with the job, Presidents are just glorified civilians, public servants who made it to state leadership. State leadership is very much different than military leadership. For the President, he is commander in chief by office, not tenure. Therefore, we do expect more discipline from our Officers that we serve under. I certainly did. When talking about the Senior Officers of the past who dallied whilst away, they were competent enough not to get caught and kept it out of sight. These idiots played a dangerous game very carelessly and lost. Should we trust them for the safety of our fighting people? For military men, faithfulness is akin to the truth of their promise. Does he really have my back? Or is he just encouraging me to give up my life while he seeks the comfort of a woman on her back? Being honest to your vows matters.

Posted by Domsayshi | Report as abusive

Dear Author, the CIA is not the military. End of story.

Posted by bivomaster39 | Report as abusive

Mr. Ricks should leave some things to acquire a little dust before writing about them.

Posted by LizR | Report as abusive

Interesting segment, but wrong. Petraeus did not step down as a General. He stepped down as the intelligence chief. It is routine for anyone in the CIA to be stripped of security clearance if they have an affair, because they are far more blackamailable. They can also be stripped of thier security clearance for excessive personal debt, gambling habits, having friends or family who are in serious trouble with the law, you name it. If you look vulnerable…. you ARE vulnerable in spy work. Petraeus has served his country honorably and he is stepping down honorably. His wife might hit him with a frying pan when he gets home. But he has done right by America.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I agree with the article, on some aspects. This man had much to given the country, and has already given more than those judging him.
His personal life should be just that, as long as it does not impact his judgement.

and to those saying he could be blackmailed, look to what is probably the most mature approach to this from any person… when faced with a critical question from a journalist about a child he had with his mistress, French President Francois Miterand simply said “who cares?” and the story died.

If we were less reality TV trashy celebrity following as a country, we would focus on the important stuff, and leave what happens in the bedroom to those directly impacted

Posted by GA_Chris | Report as abusive

Obviously if one has a job that involves national secrets one cannot be put i a position where he can be blackmailed. In he would a agree to being bugged 24-7 have all compromising data sent to the news organizations he can be allowed to stay on.

If type of person who becomes a military leader is particularly likely to do such compromising things, may be agreeing to bugged with any compromising data being sent to his wife and girl friends should be a requirement for high military positions. Also a pledge by his wife take care of his needs daily, and one by him to have her do it.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

“I do not approve of what they reportedly did. But I also don’t think it is any of my business.” Me neither. The media created this “scandal” because the stuff of reality TV sells more ad minutes than complex global problems. We’re a culture that loves to tear down people who are successful. We have no word for this phenomenon, thus, we don’t fully understand what we’re doing because it doesn’t have a name. But the Germans have a word for it – schadenfreude.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

It should be law specifying as part of getting secret or above clearance the individual and their mate agree to have the mate take care to keep the individuals privet parts exhausted. Failure to do so should result in jail time.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Compare to James Bond, Mr. Petraeus is quite a Saint in the field. Cant wait to see who are the new girlfriends of Mr. James Bond in the latest release coming soon.

Posted by Freedom4A | Report as abusive

I agree with the author and am ashamed of most the commenters above. It really shows how the demographics of the US have changed. It is no longer the country I knew and defended. I feel like a man who’s nation has abandoned him.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

There is too much here we don’t know.
How can a low-level gum-shoe begin an investigation going after the head of the CIA? What does sending bare-chested e-mails to his lady friends signify, and how does this FBI agent qualify as a “whistle-blower” with Republican Rep. Eric Cantor in D.C.? In short, what is the role, and the motivations of the FBI?

If indeed any lowly agent can mobilize the apparatus of the FBI against any person he desires, for any personal or venal motivation driving him, then we are all in grave danger of losing our freedom, and no one is safe from the shadowy sleuths running the huge secret police apparatus we’ve created under the auspices of the FBI.

Given free reigns to investigate “terrorism”, the FBI seems to have turned into an uncontrolled, and uncontrollable secret police apparatus capable of investigating and bringing the downfall of any citizen they care to target. It appears today that in giving the FBI this kind of unlimited power, we have traded in our freedom for our hope of protection from terror. If that is the case, al Qaeda has won, and American democracy has lost.

If all General Petraeus was guilty of is an extramarital affair, we are a nation of fools for allowing him to resign, or for finding this in any way acceptable. On the contrary – in that case, we should be demanding his reinstatement. There are many metrics to judge our officials – whether they are having, or have had an extramarital affair should not be one of them.

Posted by streetview | Report as abusive

“We have asked much of him, sending him on three tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Yet when the time came for us to be generous in return, we were not.”

We have asked too much from EVERY soldier who has served multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Does Mr. Ricks have the same sympathy for those with less rank who committed adultery, and were court-martialed/disciplined/had their career suffer the consequences?
The only difference is timing – the General waited until he was a civilian.

Posted by Kelsbells | Report as abusive

I agree 100%, we have no business in the privates live of the general or anyone. When is it anyone’s business about who we do or do not sleep with? These are all consenting adults.

Posted by JHJSS3 | Report as abusive

People in positions of great power over the lives of others need to demonstrate good judgment. Expecting those with that power to refrain from behavior that is considered bad judgment in our society is not too much to ask.

I sometimes wonder what these powerful people are thinking, when the “other side” is always, always, always out to destroy them. Thinking they won’t get caught is a far worse judgment lapse than having that extramarital affair. He should leave for being stupid, not unfaithful.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Given the considerable debate over Petraeus’ achievements, comparing him to Eisenhower does a considerable disservice to Eisenhower. Not only a great general, but a true leader.

Many suggest that Petraeus was the Kardashian of the Pentagon. Faithful tame press retinue in constant attendance, plagiarized COIN manual, Iraq surge a success only because a civil war had already erupted that continues, Afghanistan surge a success only in that it delayed the inevitable defeat until after the election.

That so few of his peers actually mourn his going – or he would not be going – is an indication that his press related obsessions rather than his sex life was the real cause of his downfall.

Posted by Brent1023 | Report as abusive

Ricks is right, Petraus issue tells us more about our country. Why should the nation care about a person that breaks the most important covenant relationship two humans can enter into? Ricks moral relativisnm is a perfect example of why the US is becoming a moral cesspool.

Posted by MEWeaver | Report as abusive

Don’t judge someone on his private life on the so called moralistic standards that we assume for ourselves. We too are prone to the same failing that is on display and a chance for course correction should have been given. Confidential documents in the hands of his paramour needs to be investigated and found if he was responsible for it or was it the lady’s work.

No general or capable person should be treated this way. The sin of not doing much is far larger a sin than the sin of having done it one’s way.

Posted by JacobC | Report as abusive

Of course he had to resign…who could respect him? Who could trust him? What else was he capable of?
We need men and women of character who would not cheat on their spouses, or their country. Who would not poison the cool-aid, or have a secret “enemies” list. This is not about sex…it’s about character. This is not some puritanical prudishness, but a real question about the character of men who have the concerns and cares of a petty woman and her family with no real connection to the military, attach herself familiarly to 2 of our top commanders, with unsavory results. If these women with their meager resources could crack open our corrupt leadership…what would someone with a real mission or talent reveal? Character does count. These texting, emailing, frolicking men and their stupid women disgust me. Evidently, none of them are working…

Posted by 2educated | Report as abusive

Petraeus soiled himself badly. The sex caper was cheesy, but his use of public funds for his high lifestyle is the big mistake. I think of our service men and women on the war front, and Petraeus acting like the big man, running women and soaking the taxpayers, boils my blood. He needs to get out of public life. No one will miss him.

Posted by ironiclad | Report as abusive