Revelations that now-former CIA director David Petraeus had an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, have pulled into focus how the press reveres America’s highest-ranked military generals. Not only does the affair itself show the folly of someone allowing his or her self to become too embedded with any one military officer but it also shows what happens when the media builds up a figure like Petraeus and then is given reason to be disappointed.
The press can barely come to grips with the fact that America has “lost” someone widely considered to be a role model for leadership among establishment journalists. CNN’s Howard Kurtz said, “This is a guy who when he was a four-star general and even as a junior officer was portrayed as practically being able to walk on water. He was on magazine covers, he was touted as a potential presidential candidate, and that was no accident.”
It was no accident because he “gave a lot of access to selected journalists.” That is why, unlike other scandals, the media has not been behaving like it normally does when it covers sex scandals.
“We’re all over those people, dumb, moronic, couldn’t keep his zipper zipped,” Kurtz said. But, in this case, “the whole underlying tone has been much more, what a tragedy, a great man who made a mistake.” Media have instead “exhibited” the “natural human tendency to be a little bit more courteous and sympathetic towards somebody they know, trust and perhaps admire.”
One example of this uncharacteristic response comes from Thomas Ricks, journalist and author of multiple books venerating military officers including Petraeus, told Reuters, “President Obama should not have accepted his resignation.” Why is that? Because, according to Ricks, “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’ departure again demonstrates we are strict about intimate behavior, but extraordinarily lax about professional incompetence.
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…
Ricks notes General Dwight D. Eisenhower had a romance with his driver, Kay Summersby. He also cites Matthew Ridgway, a general who served in World War II and Korea, who “seemed to get a new wife for every war.” Now, he contends, the nation no longer has much “military experience” and “no longer” prizes “military effectiveness.” No longer are Americans able to judge it either.
This is absolute nonsense and it is quite audacious to say this after a Veterans’ Day where one could not escape scenes of military worship if they were tuned into an NFL football game. It shows a complete disregard for the fact that the reason that wars become unpopular to Americans is not because Americans are culturally more desiring of initiatives of peace but rather because they do not sense that wars are going well on the ground. If a general could correct and stabilize, the public would return to fully supporting any nation-building venture. The military, with the help of the media, would convince the public that the venture was necessary to the security, safety or future of the country.
Like various members of the press, Ricks holds Petraeus in high regard because of “the surge” he oversaw in Iraq. Ricks suggests “the surge” made it possible for US troops to begin withdrawal. This is similar to what former Brigadier General Mark Kimmit, who served as Deputy Director for Strategy and Plans for the United States Central Command, said on “Piers Morgan Tonight” on Monday.
…To suggest that he was not successful in Iraq belies the facts. I was there three days ago. I’ve been in Baghdad for the last two weeks. It is a much different place than it was when David Petraeus took over there…
Kimmit was brought on the show to dispel concerns that Petraeus may no longer be the star general the media has spent the last two military occupations celebrating. Michael Hastings, author of The Operators, was also on the program and challenged Kimmit.
The former brigadier general tried to present Petraeus as an honorable figure. Hastings reacted:
…The media has played a role in protecting David Petraeus, promoting David Petraeus and mythologizing David Petraeus. And we saw it here tonight. General Kimmit, who was a spokesperson in Baghdad, who was a roommate of Petraeus, who was involved in one of the biggest debacles in recent foreign policy history, is on TV defending David Petraeus without actually addressing the real problems with David Petraeus’ record…
Though Kimmit did not suggest that Petraeus should not have resigned, he refused to acknowledge that Petraeus had participated in a conscious manipulation of the White House to ensure the war in Afghanistan was escalated. He also refused to admit that “the surge” had been a brutal and savage campaign involving the arming of Sunni death squads.
In his book, Hastings wrote:
…In the summer of 2004, at the height of the presidential election between John Kerry and George W. Bush, Petraeus writes an op-ed for The Washington Post, saying that the Americans were making progress in Iraq. It certainly didn’t hurt his relationship with President Bush, despite the fact there is absolutely no progress being made. Under his watch, one hundred thousand weapons supplied to the Iraq army and police go missing. More disturbingly, the army and police units he trains go on to become the death squads in Iraq’s brutal civil war—its men “dress like army and police” who rampage through Baghdad, killing tens of thousands, kidnapping men in the middle of the night, and, as we learn later, running a system of secret prisons and torture dungeons. Yes, it’s the Iraqi security forces trained and equipped by Petraeus who do these horrible things, who set the stage for the sectarian war in Baghdad. “After he leaves a legacy of shit behind because of the long-term effects of the choices he’s made, he’s never held to account,” explains a US military official in Baghdad. “No one calls him out.” …
No one calls Petraeus out because they themselves are intellectually and emotionally invested in the projects—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the counterinsurgency efforts in both those countries, the projection of power by the United States. They believe in the ability of Petraeus to lead and the methods used in operations.
On “Piers Morgan Tonight,” Kimmit responded to Hastings, “I was over there as a private businessman. I’ve been going in there for the last 9 years both in uniform and as a State Dept official and now as a private individual and to suggest that Iraq today is the same Iraq that David Petraeus saw when he walked in the door just demonstrates that Michael hasn’t been there and unfortunately it doesn’t make the story for him so I can’t help him.”
Kimmit accused Hastings of being more concerned with getting a story than reporting the truth. The implication is similar to the screed POLITICO’s Dylan Byers published today that specifically aimed to assassinate the character of Hastings.
The paragraph that stands out in Byers’ hatchet job:
…[H]e considers himself something of a gonzo journalist. His gut instinct is to cause trouble. At a time when the mainstream media seem more cautious than ever, that can be extremely refreshing. If you believe that journalists are supposed to call bull when they see it, then Hastings is your man. But to those who believe journalists shouldn’t be advocates — either out of ethical concerns or practical ones (it’s not always effective) — Hastings is muddying sacred waters… [emphasis added]
Byers’ post reinforces the groupthink pervasive amongst those in what Hastings termed the media-military-industrial complex, people who become offended when commentators and journalists step out of line and report or state something truthful about those in power. And the suggestion that Hastings is “muddying sacred waters” is sanctimonious and laughable. Anyone who respects the tradition of journalism should see it the other way and suggest individuals like Kimmit and Ricks, content to use platforms in the media to repeat military propaganda, are “muddying sacred waters.”
Additionally, when Hastings brought up Petraeus’ use of death squads, Morgan said, “It’s not a fact that everybody agrees with you about. That’s my point. These are contentious analysis of a controversial, quite polarizing figure but who to many people remains a hero.”
It is not that the truth of what happened with the Iraq surge is not, well, the truth. It is that those involved in telling Americans how to think about this scandal do not think it is truth so Hastings has to back off. Like Morgan says, to many Petraeus remains a hero. The press cannot have people like Hastings going around and shattering the perception of Petraeus any more than it has already been shattered by the announcement that he had an affair. They cannot because they themselves have contributed, like Hastings said, to elevating him.
The establishment press are truly disheartened by this affair. Their constant digging for more sordid details is motivated by this disappointment more than their commitment to truth. The Washington Post editorial board thinks this affair is a “serious blow to the nation’s national security leadership and it comes at an unfortunate moment.” The image of Petraeus was so inflated that the Post is convinced “President Obama could have benefited particularly from Mr. Petraeus’s knowledge and seasoning as he begins to grapple with second-term challenges in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere.” Petraeus understood “those issues as well as any American and his record of service as a military commander is without equal in his generation.”
If one wanted to agitate the media-military-industrial complex a little bit more, he or she could ask, is this a more damaging blow to national security than the releases of classified information by WikiLeaks? Interestingly, the Iraq War Logs released revealed details on Frago 242, an order to not investigate any breach of the laws of armed conflict, such as torture, in Iraq. It exposed some of the operations of the Wolf Brigade, which Jeff Kaye writes was a police commando unit that “trained with US forces, and was notorious for torture and extrajudicial murders in Sunni neighborhoods.” But do not expect the press to show concern for the judgment Petraeus showed in empowering death squads.
The scandal, for the US media, is sex. It is whatever one can imagine he did when he allowed Broadwell to embed with him in ways no other journalist had previously. It is the poor judgment he engaged in when he should have known better because Petraeus had always been a role model. It is not agendas or projects overseas to expand American empire. The agenda of the national security state is not questioned as that would jeopardize relationships, arrangements and unspoken but understood agreements for access with those in power.