General Fail

As someone who recently published a confessional essay titled “How I Enabled the Cult of Lance Armstrong,” I was immediately drawn to Spencer Ackerman’s confessional post, “How I Was Drawn Into the Cult of David Petraeus,” published over the weekend on Wired’s website.

Like many in the press, nearly every national politician, and lots of members of Petraeus’ brain trust over the years, I played a role in the creation of the legend around David Petraeus. Yes, Paula Broadwell wrote the ultimate Petraeus hagiography, the now-unfortunately titled All In. But she was hardly alone. (Except maybe for the sleeping-with-Petraeus part.) The biggest irony surrounding Petraeus’ unexpected downfall is that he became a casualty of the very publicity machine he cultivated to portray him as superhuman. I have some insight into how that machine worked.

It’s a bracingly self-critical and comprehensive survey of how Ackerman, an immensely talented and hyper-skeptical security journalist, became susceptible to the Petraeus aura and the great man’s highly efficient technique for disarming and co-opting people who might affect his reputation and public image.

Along with displaying the obvious virtues of honesty and transparency, Ackerman’s move is also a prudent one — a tactic akin to the Watergate era’s “modified limited hangout,” in which the guilty party can preemptively do damage control and proactively calibrate the terms and the extent of the salutary mea culpa. (I should know.) The efficacy of this approach depends, of course, on how guilty you really are and how willing your enemies and critics are to let you leave it at that. I suspect that Ackerman will be getting off scot free, as he should, now that he’s given himself a few stinging lashes.

Beyond the soap-opera lubriciousness and a journalist’s hangover, however, there’s something powerfully uncanny about the fall of David Patraeus — the perfect name for a gladiator of national security — in part because it came so suddenly on the heels of the sacrificial frenzies of the presidential leadership contest, in part because the idea of Patraeus had been so overburdened with martial virtue and soldier-scholar brilliance, and in part because the civic worship of Patraeus had so usefully served as a tribal shield to deflect the unacknowledged failures of Iraq and Afghanistan. At the moment it’s hard to see anything but a banana-republic floridness in the medals and commendations the general routinely wore, like twenty pounds of headlines stapled to his chest.

And Petraesus losing his job at the CIA over an extramarital affair seems even stranger in light of the military historian Thomas E. Ricks’s recent argument that the quality of leadership in the U.S. military has been seriously degraded by a culture of automatic promotion where nobody ever gets fired for screwing up — an argument that Spencer Ackerman irreverently highlighted in a recent interview with Ricks (“Your Favorite Army General Actually Sucks”).


Update 11-15-2012:

William Pfaff writes:

As a former serviceman, I have been long bemused by the proliferation of ribbons and other decorations on the chests of today’s high-ranking army officers. Petraeus, who left the military academy in 1974, now is entitled to wear 45 ribbons and 10 metal ornaments on his military blouse (other than unit patches, and parachute and similar badges). He has seen active combat only as commander of the 101st Airborne in the Gulf War. His only combat decoration is the Bronze Star with V (for valor). He wears the prized expert infantry badge, but without the wreath indicating participation in infantry combat.

And Andrew Sullivan published this image, with a note from a reader that Ike “typically wore only three or four [medals] at a time”:

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