Now People Are Just Trolling Me (David Petraeus Edition)

November 19, 2012, 7:01 pm

The wolves are out for David Petraeus now that he’s shown such horrendous personal judgment and lost his untouchable position. There are two forms that I’ve noticed thus far. There’s the “I served under Petraeus and he was awful!” form. There’s the “Petraeus wasn’t a man’s general, he was an effete-namby-pamby-type general.”

The “I Served With Him” Genre

In the former category, we have this (warning! Naughty language), written by “Hawkeye Pierce”:

I’ve detested Petraeus for a long, long time. I’ve tried writing about him for a decade, but nobody seemed to listen. He was bulletproof back then—not so anymore. Now’s the time for me to tell you all about this self-serving shithead and what it was like being his bitch for years.

Pierce’s complaints? When Petraeus took over, he made his soldiers get uniform haircuts, practice holding the grips of their rifles consistently, had them over to his house for holiday parties, and did military exercises in front of aged politicians (Strom Thurmond).

That’s it. It’s all dressed up in fevered language, but that’s really it: haircut, weapon grip, holiday parties, military exercises. I might even write a defense of each of them (the weapon grip probably comes from the fact that Petraeus got shot in the chest by the accidental discharge of a rifle back in the 1990s), but why bother? None of those things rise even to the level of unusual, let alone abusive. George Patton physically attacked his soldiers (and largely got away with it) and Pierce is complaining about the barbering?

The “Not a Man’s General, Sir!” Genre

Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have sterling examples of the “Not a Man’s General, Sir!” genre recently, by Peggy Noonan (WSJ), and Lucian Truscott IV. (NYT) Here, the attack is on Petraeus as a general. It’s not on what he actually did as a general–that would require a certain amount of knowledge and research–but on how he presents himself.

Noonan, channelling Andrew Sullivan, complains of Petraeus’ dress code:

The other day on his Daily Beast blog, Andrew Sullivan posted a letter from a reader noting the way officers are now given and relentlessly wear on their dress uniforms ribbons, markers and awards for pretty much everything they do—what used to be called fruit salad. Mr. Sullivan posted two pictures we echo here, one of Gen. David Petraeus and one of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. This is the Eisenhower of D-Day, of the long slog through Europe in World War II. He didn’t seem to see the need to dress himself up and tell you what he’d done. Maybe he thought you knew. He didn’t wear all the honors to which he was entitled, though he could have used them to dazzle the masses if that had been what he was interested in.

OB VJ359 noonan G 20121115123724

Of course, about two minutes with Google image search could have come up with photos to produce this comparison:


Here, it’s Petraeus being modest with the uniform, and Ike flashing some fruit salad. But, of course, that wouldn’t fit the narrative.

Lucian Truscott IV starts his op-ed in the Times off in the same vein, but worse. Truscott’s op-ed–which Tom Ricks calls the “perhaps the worst op-ed I’ve ever read” is a remarkable accomplishment. It requires real concentration to be so consistently bad. Admittedly, it’s only for 800 words or so, but still, that’s a level of focus to which we should all aspire.

Truscott begins with Noonan’s point:

FASTIDIOUSNESS is never a good sign in a general officer. Though strutting military peacocks go back to Alexander’s time, our first was MacArthur, who seemed at times to care more about how much gold braid decorated the brim of his cap than he did about how many bodies he left on beachheads across the Pacific.

Oof. American generals have a long history of fastidiousness, and it often goes along with substantial ability. Winfield Scott–”Old Fuss and Feathers”–was quite the fastidious officer. He may be the greatest general in American military history (so says I). George Patton was so obsessed with having his soldiers properly dressed and wearing their helmets (fining them if they didn’t), that said helmets became known as the “$25 derby” in the units under his command.[1] I won’t even mention his penchant for pearl ivory-handled sidearms. Heck, Lucian Truscott, Jr., the ancestor of the op-ed writer, was “almost foppish: enameled helmet, silk scarf, red leather jacket, [and] riding breeches.”

The shot at MacArthur also ignores the fact that (egomaniac that he was), he took substantially fewer casualties in his Pacific campaigns than did the more famous island-hopping attacks.

Truscott continues:

we, and our generals, stopped doing about the time that MacArthur gold-braided his way around the stalemated Korean War.

More historical inanity. Whatever MacArthur’s problems in Korea (and they were legion), the conflict was surely not stalemated during his time. In fact, it was marked by rapid changes of fortune on both sides. The odd thing is that Truscott could make the same argument, given MacArthur’s mishandling of the invasion of North Korea, but he doesn’t. Perhaps Inchon and the race to the Yalu (disastrous consequences and all) were simply too manly to fit into the image of MacArthur as gold-braided fop.

Truscott goes on:

The genius of General Petraeus was to recognize early on that the war he had been sent to fight in Iraq wasn’t a real war at all.

The war in Iraq “wasn’t a real war at all” because? Truscott doesn’t say, instead recounting a story about 2003:

I spent part of the fall of 2003 with General Petraeus and the 101st Airborne Division in and around Mosul, Iraq. One of the first questions I asked him was what his orders had been. Was he ordered to “take Mosul,” I asked. No answer. How about “Find Mosul and report back”? No answer. Finally I asked him if his orders were something along the lines of “Go to Mosul!” He gave me an almost imperceptible nod. It must have been the first time an American combat infantry division had been ordered into battle so casually

It wasn’t a real war because the orders weren’t long enough? It’s an odd criticism and Truscott might remind himself of what other army famously relied on minimal orders. But whatever the reason for it not being a real war, even Petraeus’ effective actions didn’t count because…well, let me let Truscott explain:

And the truth is he did a lot of good things, like conceiving of the idea of basically buying the loyalties of various factions in Iraq. But they weren’t the kinds of things that win wars. In fact, they were the kinds of things that prolong wars, which for the general had the useful side effect of putting him on ever grander stages so he could be seen doing ever grander things, culminating in his appointment last year as the director of the C.I.A.

I eagerly await Truscott’s explanation of how the sustained and successful Allied effort in World War II to get Italy to surrender and change sides wasn’t the kind of thing that helped win wars. In fact, buying the loyalties of your enemies or allies has a long and storied military history. It is precisely the kind of thing that wins wars.

But these generals, like Petraeus, don’t measure up to the old timers of the Greatest Generation:

It’s not just General Petraeus. 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.

Those generals, in my humble opinion, were nearly psychotic in their drive to kill enemy soldiers and subjugate enemy nations. Thankfully, we will probably never have cause to go back to those blood-soaked days. But we still shouldn’t allow our military establishment to give us one generation after another of imitation generals who pretend to greatness on talk shows and photo spreads, jetting around the world in military-spec business jets.

I will skip over the part where the Allies essentially brought off the Vichy French in North Africa and convinced them to switch sides (after all, that’s not the kind of thing that wins wars), and point out the incoherence of it all. The American attack which conquered Iraq in 2003 was a much faster blitzkrieg than anything Patton managed, but Truscott carefully ignores this. The insurgency which broke out afterwards is a kind of warfare that is explicitly designed to target the weak points of the conventional war machine that Truscott lionizes (see here, and here for discussion). Truscott does not understand that, and though he never says, it is clear that this is what he means by real war: “blood-soaked days” full of “psychotic” generals with “military murder” on their minds. It’s like a bad parody of war written by a mostly unsuccessful Hollywood screenwriter.

Not even a bad Hollywood screenwriter should come up with the sentences that follow:

The generals who won World War II 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. General Petraeus probably flosses.

Truscott has gone from uniforms to dental hygiene. Good teeth are the mark of poor generalship.

So Truscott rises to his conclusion:

Think of how many tens of thousands of lives could have been saved by ending those conflicts much earlier and sending Dave and his merry band of Doonesbury generals to the showers.

Garry Trudeau, who has done substantial work supporting the troops over the last ten years, gets to be the punchline to this terminally vapid op-ed. I’m sure he’s thrilled. Even by the standards of the New York Times op-ed page, this is appalling dreck, dressed up in a historical guise. In its (and Noonan’s and Hawkeye Pierce’s) obsession with trivia and appearance, Truscott’s piece distracts from actual, genuine criticisms of the military’s strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan, of which there are many. In all of those genuine criticisms, “they weren’t manly enough” does not appear. Petraeus messed up big time, but he deserves a better quality of critics than this.

[1] Carlo D’Este, Patton : A Genius for War (1st ed. ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995), 464.

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