Thursday, November 22, 2012
U.S. Military owes more to combat Joes than a four-star General
This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 14 November 2012.
The pressure on those in positions of great responsibility is tremendous. Although constantly surrounded, they are, in fact, alone. Men like General David Petraeus and General John Allen could never live up to the myths that surround them, pedestals they never asked to be placed upon as fame-seekers do – though, certainly in Petraeus' case, they haven't shied from it. To expect them to live up to the standards of perfection others have set for them is an impossible task no one could succeed at. They're not saints. They're soldiers. Marines.
Yet, at some point, "celebrity generals" pass out of the realm of being troopers and into being politicians. Similar uproar occurred when President Obama required General Stanley McChrystal, another admirable commander, to resign after he and his staff publicly criticised the commander-in-chief, a well-known "don't" in the military. That was a case of over-confidently taking shots in the press. The Petraeus affair is worse, in that it may have presented a real threat to national security as an opportunity for a foreign intelligence service to exploit.
I'm a two-tour army veteran of the Iraq war. I've spent the majority of my adult life as a soldier. We're no angels. Guys and girls like me come in any colour, from inner-city or rural America, places like the south side of Chicago or Lovelady, Texas. We're regular middle- or lower-class kids (average age: 19). Some joined for college money; some to get away from home; others out of a sense of duty. We like to fight, we like to swear, get tattoos, and we enjoy a good drink. We remain pretty much anonymous. We don't have biographers or make it onto the social circuit.
We're the absolute backbone of the country – Uncle Sam's misguided children. We're the men and women without any of the advantages in life. We're not supposed to succeed, but we do. In fact, it's the very flaws in each of our individual characters that make it all the more extraordinary what the US military has achieved in its 236 years. As we're reminded every Veteran's Day, victory was never certain and the sacrifices by our troops are great. These were the men and women fighting in Afghanistan while this melodrama was going on back home.
One can see how allowances can be made for the personal indiscretions of such people. Yet, I somehow can't help but feel let down by the expanding circle of this controversy, which has brought down General Petraeus and threatens to do the same to General Allen. I expected more of them, and the behaviour thus far revealed seems petty and melodramatic – a military soap opera complete with affairs, threatening notes, twins and fancy parties.
There are some who believe that this affair is nothing compared to the work General Petraeus has done for the country. Despite the great respect I have for the general, I find myself less willing to grant such allowances.
It is a military principle that a leader cannot impose a standard on others he doesn't impose on himself. This situation started out innocently enough, but seems to have gotten out of control. As director of an intelligence agency, the general would certainly have seen the danger this scenario presented if he had been looking at it from the outside. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recognised that – and required Petraeus' resignation.
General Petraeus is widely respected by the military and veterans. But he is utterly exalted in both liberal and conservative Washington circles, which see him as a sort of noble warrior-philosopher, with credentials from West Point, Princeton and Georgetown. I was taught in the military that none of us is indispensable. We're all cogs in the wheel, and two minutes after we walk out the door, there will be an adequate replacement. The machine keeps going. The success or failure of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the United States as a whole, do not depend upon the fate of one or two men, no matter how exemplary their service. This country is stronger than that.
In fact, as study of our recent military campaigns has gone on, we have arguably been successful in many respects, despite the failures and inadequacies of some of our top military commanders and elected leadership. The credit for our limited successes should go to the great mass of regular, everyday troops who have been called upon to be not just soldiers, but police officers, doctors, aid workers, public works directors and social scientists.
The tough kids with high school diplomas got it done, not the administration in Washington, Ivy League professors, the brass in the Pentagon or generals at garden parties. These average Americans have done more than was asked of them and theirs should be all the credit.
The combat Joes are the ones who have been let down by this scandal. General Petraeus shouldn't have been placed on an exalted pedestal, even if he welcomed it. That very isolation may have clouded his judgment and created the risk of a security breach. In the end, though, he is a man just like other men: he is a cog in the wheel and the United States will go on without General Petraeus.