I love a Washington scandal as much as the next voyeur, but somehow this one feels different. The two generals on the front pages now have served their country beyond most of our experiences. I think many Americans understand that and take no pleasure in their travails.
First, a couple of clarifications: Former Army Gen. David Petraeus and Marine Gen. John Allen are not in equivalent trouble. Petraeus, who is married, has acknowledged an affair with his biographer, who is married, and has resigned from his post of CIA director. Allen has not acknowledged or been accused of anything beyond sending friendly e-mails to a woman who is not his wife. His nomination to become the top general at NATO is on hold, not rescinded.
Second, this is no criticism of the reporting on this surreal scandal. Questions about how the investigation started, the actions of the FBI, the cushy lifestyle of the brass, the possible leaking of classified documents — these are legitimate and far from fully answered. To the extent either leader violated rules his subordinates are expected to follow, he should be held to account as they would be. Being generals doesn’t entitle them to more deference than anyone else in the story, including the lesser-known women swept up in it. I hope reporters stay on the case. I’m sure they will.
But I also expect that a lot of us won’t enjoy it much. When a vainglorious politician takes a tumble or the hypocrisy of yet another fatuous moralist is exposed — well, all but the most virtuous among us take some pleasure.
This one is different.
Petraeus served in the U.S. Army for 37 years, but let’s look at just the past decade. In 2003, he led the 101st Airborne through fierce fighting into Iraq and then worked to bring peace to Mosul and surrounding territory in the north. In 2004 his division came home, but a few months later Petraeus was sent back to help train a new Iraqi army. He was sent back for a third tour in January 2007, to head allied forces. That was at the height of antiwar fervor here; his strategy was doubted and his integrity questioned; he absorbed attacks that were really directed at President George W. Bush as he wrestled something close enough to victory from the jaws of what had seemed certain disaster. And then, when President Obama replaced Bush, Petraeus overcame the suspicions of a new administration by serving his new commander in chief with equal dedication, including when he was sent once again to war, this time in Afghanistan.
Allen’s career has been less public but hardly less impressive. A Marine since graduating from the Naval Academy 37 years ago, Allen led U.S. forces in Iraq’s Anbar province during some of the war’s most difficult days. For the past 16 months he has commanded allied forces in Afghanistan. Like all our officers, he takes the orders that emerge from the messy, conflicted policymaking apparatus in Washington, and he does his best to bring about a favorable result against long odds. He’s soft-spoken, hard-driving, committed to his troops and to success, however Washington defines it.
Are they perfect human beings? Even before the latest stories, we could have been confident saying no. Have they been able generals, devoted public servants, useful contributors to their country? Those strike me as the important questions, and they’re not hard to answer.
In the era of a small all-volunteer force, many Americans don’t know anyone serving in Afghanistan. Most will never meet a general officer. In Congress, in the media, on university faculties, there are few veterans. We stand and cheer at ballgames when wounded warriors are shown on the big screen, and our cheers are heartfelt. But they don’t bring us closer to understanding what it’s like to fight a war, or come back from one, or spend every other year apart from spouse and family. These days, we call anyone in a uniform a hero, and that’s understandable. But it’s not quite correct.
What many of them are, Petraeus and Allen among them, are people who have done hard, honorable duty for their country. When this is all over, I hope we get straight what rates an asterisk in their life stories and what really counts.