A Phony Critique of Petraeus
What the New York Times got wrong about the scandal.
Gen. David Petraeus speaks after briefing lawmakers on Capitol Hill in 2007 in Washington
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.
Ten days after David Petraeus’ resignation, we find ourselves mud-deep in the revisionist phase that often mires a public scandal. Great Man has a Great Fall, and everything about his life gets recast through the same tawdry prism. A counterrevisionism phase will surely soon follow, then a counter to that counter … these things often take months or years to settle. (Then again, it might take a mere six weeks.)
Meanwhile, let us consider one of the most bizarre spectacles of revisionism in the annals of not just Petraeus but anybody: an op-ed in the Sunday Review section of the Sunday New York Times, “A Phony Hero for a Phony War,” by Lucian K. Truscott IV.
I know little about Truscott except that his grandfather was a legendary World War II commander and that he himself followed the family footsteps into West Point, left the Army soon after, and wrote a highly regarded novel, Dress Gray, which caused a great stir at the time (1978) for piercing the dome of sexual scandal and secrecy at West Point in a way that no previous author had ventured.
Judging from his op-ed, though, a few things are clear: Truscott romanticizes his grandfather’s era, his view of the modern Army is remarkably shallow, and he seems to have no understanding of what Petraeus was trying to accomplish in Iraq. There is much to criticize about Petraeus, and even more about those wars, but Truscott paints a cartoon portrait—even characterizing its commanders as “Dave and his merry band of Doonesbury generals”—that makes Mad magazine look like social realism by comparison.
From the first line (“Fastidiousness is never a good sign in a general officer”), the piece is, at best, a head-scratcher. Truscott chortles over the “beribboned finery” of Petraeus’ uniform and likens him to such “strutting military peacocks” as Douglas MacArthur and William Westmoreland—fun stuff at first glance, though on reflection, Petraeus (whatever else might be said of him) is the opposite of those other two generals in every way imaginable.
Truscott then hints at a thesis. A general’s job, he writes, is “winning wars—something we and our generals stopped doing about the time that MacArthur gold-braided his way around the stalemated Korean War.” But the Korean stalemate can hardly be linked to MacArthur, who wanted to “win” the war by invading the north and nuking China. Surely Truscott isn’t wistful about a similar notion of victory, is he?
He then moans that Petraeus, in Iraq and Afghanistan, “failed to conquer the countries we invaded, and ended up occupying undefeated nations.” But, in both those wars, Petraeus took command in the occupation phase, well after Saddam Hussein and the Taliban had fallen. By this point, the goal was hardly—nor should they have been—to “conquer” the nations.
Then comes the deep brow-furrower: “The genius of General Petraeus,” Truscott writes, “was to recognize early on that the war he had been sent to fight in Iraq wasn’t a real war at all.” (Italics added.) Apparently, to Truscott, a war isn’t “a real war” unless it’s about maneuvering tanks, conquering territory, and subjugating defeated peoples. He suggests as much a bit later: “The fact is that none of our generals have led us to a victory since men like Patton and my grandfather, Lucian King Truscott, Jr., stormed the beaches of North Africa and southern France with blood in their eyes and military murder on their minds.”
Here’s where Truscott gets get really confusing. He writes, “Those generals, in my humble opinion, were nearly psychotic in their drive to kill enemy soldiers and subjugate enemy nations.” It’s unclear: Is that a good thing? Apparently not, for the next sentence reads: “Thankfully, we will probably never have cause to go back to those blood-soaked ways.” But then he denounces Petraeus for insufficient blood-soaking. “The generals who won World War II,” he writes, “were the kind of men who, as it was said at the time, chewed nails for breakfast, spit tacks at lunch, and picked their teeth with their pistol barrels.” By contrast, he goes on, “General Petraeus probably flosses.”
First of all, this nail-chewing business is the stuff of pulp fiction. The stereotype might fit MacArthur, George Patton, and Truscott’s grandfather (who, as Tom Ricks notes, was as preening as they come)—but not remotely the likes of George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, James Gavin, or many others. Second, he seems to suggest that it’s bad—a sign of preciousness, maybe effeminacy—that Petraeus “probably flosses.” Is Truscott suggesting here, in a reversal of his earlier remarks, that MacArthur and Patton are admirable in their “psychotic” ravages?
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.