David Petraeus is latest US military officer to engineer his own downfall

Once-vaunted general is latest in long line of US military officers to have engineered their own downfall by becoming embroiled in scandal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 4:33am

The sex scandal that punctured the image of America's most admired general, David Petraeus, is just the latest in a litany of cases of misconduct plaguing the US top brass, and raises questions about a military that is venerated but isolated from civilian society.

Even before Petraeus - a retired four-star commander - stunned Washington by announcing his resignation as director of the CIA over an extramarital affair, a growing number of generals and other senior officers were facing allegations of ethical lapses and sexual abuse.

The revelations paint a picture of military leadership living a privileged, insulated existence, and a country that often discourages public criticism of anyone in uniform, after a decade of wars waged by an all-volunteer force.

Petraeus, perhaps the most storied American soldier of his generation, exemplified that level of admiration. There had even been talk of a presidential run, a possibility that now seems laughably remote.

"The country put him on a big, high pedestal, and he took himself off that pedestal with his own actions," said retired colonel Steve Boylan, Petraeus' former aide and acting spokesman since the scandal broke. "As he told me, 'I screwed up.'"

The Petraeus case is part of a spate of recent cases involving senior officers, leading many to question whether respect for the military is always justified.

Those under fire include the former head of Africa Command, General William Ward, who spent government funds to live a lavish lifestyle and ordered staff to perform personal errands, an inspector general's report found.

An army brigadier general, Jeffrey Sinclair, the deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, was removed from his post this year in Afghanistan after being accused of sexual misconduct with subordinates and of threatening one woman's life. According to prosecutors, when questioned about his demeaning comments about women, Sinclair replied: "I'm a general, I'll do whatever the (expletive) I want."

His alleged remark reflects what critics call a culture of entitlement among top officers, who they contend are held to a different standard than rank-and-file soldiers.

Another inspector general report found that Lieutenant General Patrick O'Reilly heaped abuse on his underlings at the Missile Defence Agency. One witness cited in the report described his leadership style as "management by blowtorch and pliers".

In June 2010, Rolling Stone magazine published an article that quoted scathing remarks General Stanley McChrystal - at the time leader of the US and Nato forces in Afghanistan - and his aides made about their civilian bosses, including Vice-President Joseph Biden. They referred to them as fools who were ignorant of the complexities of war. US President Barack Obama called McChrystal back to Washington to explain, and forced him to resign. Petraeus then took over the Afghan command.

Although the army has come in for the most scrutiny, no service has been immune. The US Air Force has struggled to cope with a flood of allegations of sexual assault against woman recruits at its basic-training centre in Lackland, Texas, and the navy took the unusual step last month of relieving Rear Admiral Charles Gaouette of his command of the Stennis aircraft carrier group while it was on mission in the Arabian Sea.

The admiral was one of 22 naval commanding officers sacked this year for various failures, according to the Navy Times.

Former US defence secretary Dr Robert Gates, who stepped down last year, argued that the general officer corps had become bloated and a wasteful drain on the Pentagon budget, and he pushed to scale back the number of generals and admirals.

Gates also voiced concern over a growing gap between the volunteer force and the rest of society, which critics worry feeds a belief among some officers that rules do not apply to them because they have put their lives on the line, unlike civilians back home.

America loves its soldiers, but none was as revered and prominent as Petraeus, the warrior-scholar credited with rescuing the war effort in Iraq. The scandal surrounding his affair with biographer Paula Broadwell is now encouraging unprecedented scrutiny of his policies.

The infallibility of Petraeus was an extension of the near-mythic regard in the United States for its fighting forces. In Petraeus' case, detractors say, the myth was bolstered by his inner circle and a sycophantic press corps, swallowed by a fawning government and ultimately punctured by his own weakness when it came to an attractive and ambitious devotee.

"I think there's always a cult of celebrity, a cult of power," said a Western official who had spent time in Petraeus' headquarters in Afghanistan and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

That personality cult made it difficult to criticise Petraeus on the national stage. He was once so venerated in Washington that one could be labelled unpatriotic for challenging his strategies.

Petraeus skilfully worked the media early in the Iraq war to shape his public image as a thoughtful, modern military thinker. As a major general in 2003, Petraeus invited Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rick Atkinson to accompany him throughout the invasion of Iraq. The journalist's subsequent book about his two months with Petraeus and the 101st Airborne Division left a defining image of the general as someone clearly "entranced by the problem-solving nature of high command".

Petraeus' résumé includes his blueprint for counterinsurgency, the "surge" tactic he applied to Iraq and then Afghanistan, and the recruiting of Iraqi tribesmen in the battle against al-Qaeda.

Petraeus became the face of the counterinsurgency renaissance, his ideas heralded as groundbreaking. In fact, they were old strategies that had been rejected by the military in the post-Vietnam period, according to military historians.

To a nation that was desperate for anything resembling success in the abyss of Iraq, however, Petraeus was regarded as a trailblazer. Never mind that the manual was an amalgam of old military thinking and similar to a blueprint written in 1964 and based in part on the French incursion into Algeria. Petraeus' application of those ideas to Iraq, along with a surge of 25,000 additional US troops, "qualifies neither as particularly new nor even as a strategy", wrote US Army Colonel Gian Gentile, a Petraeus critic who teaches American and military history at West Point and who commanded a combat battalion in Baghdad in 2006.

"Better to call it, instead, an enhanced reliance on tactics and operational concepts previously in use," Gentile wrote in the World Affair Journal in 2008. "Or, put less charitably, an overhyped shift in emphasis that, on the one hand, will not necessarily yield an American victory in Iraq, but on the other might well leave the United States Army crippled in future wars."

Such criticism barely surfaced in the public arena, however, where a pliant media turned Petraeus into a national figure.

His military tactics notwithstanding, his relationship with Broadwell puts Petraeus' legacy under a cloud for the moment.

His successor in Afghanistan, General John Allen, also finds himself embroiled in the scandal, with the Pentagon inspector general launching an investigation into potentially "inappropriate" e-mails between Allen and a key figure in the case, Jill Kelley. Allen denies wrongdoing.

Tom Ricks, journalist and author of The Generals, contends that the army officer corps has grown unaccountable and it bears a share of the blame for disastrous mistakes in the Iraq war.

"We tend to venerate the military these days unthinkingly and that's not good for the military or the country," Ricks said recently.

Agence France-Presse, McClatchy-Tribune