“I was often jealous because he had four enlisted people helping him all the time,” Gates said in response to a question after a speech Thursday. He wryly complained to his wife that “Mullen’s got guys over there who are fixing meals for him, and I’m shoving something into the microwave. And I’m his boss.”
Of the many facts that have come to light in the scandal involving former CIA director David H. Petraeus, among the most curious was that during his days as a four-star general, he was once escorted by 28 police motorcycles as he traveled from his Central Command headquarters in Tampa to socialite Jill Kelley’s mansion. Although most of his trips did not involve a presidential-size convoy, the scandal has prompted new scrutiny of the imperial trappings that come with a senior general’s lifestyle.
The commanders who lead the nation’s military services and those who oversee troops around the world enjoy an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire, including executive jets, palatial homes, drivers, security guards and aides to carry their bags, press their uniforms and track their schedules in 10-minute increments. Their food is prepared by gourmet chefs. If they want music with their dinner parties, their staff can summon a string quartet or a choir.
The elite regional commanders who preside over large swaths of the planet don’t have to settle for Gulfstream V jets. They each have a C-40, the military equivalent of a Boeing 737, some of which are configured with beds.
Since Petraeus’s resignation, many have strained to understand how such a celebrated general could have behaved so badly. Some have speculated that an exhausting decade of war impaired his judgment. Others wondered if Petraeus was never the Boy Scout he appeared to be. But Gates, who still possesses a modest Kansan’s bemusement at Washington excess, has floated another theory.
“There is something about a sense of entitlement and of having great power that skews people’s judgment,” Gates said last week.
Among the Army’s general officer corps, however, there is little support for Gates’s hypothesis. “I love the man. I am his biggest supporter. But I strongly disagree,” said retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who served as Gates’s senior military assistant. “I find it concerning that he and others are not focusing on the effect on our guys of fighting wars for 11 years. No one was at it longer than Petraeus.”
Other veteran commanders concurred with Gates. David Barno, a retired three-star general who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan, warned in an interview that the environment in which the top brass lives has the potential “to become corrosive over time upon how they live their life.”