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This Changes Nothing

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2012", please click here.)

This Christmas, Eric C and I wanted two books. The first was The Signal and the Noise, by “statistics witch” Nate Silver. The second? Arnold Schwarzenegger's autobiography Total Recall.

We love Schwarzenegger who is, by any measure, an amazing individual. He won Mr. Olympia seven times. He became the world’s biggest movie star. He served as California’s governor for two terms. And then there’s the stuff people don’t know, like how he took community college classes when he first got to America to learn English and business. Or how he took advantage of California’s booming real estate market through the 80s and 90s to multiply his wealth several times over.

Yet, whenever we’ve talked about the most famous Austrian since Mozart, our friends just want to talk about the kid he fathered with his maid.


When we started this series, I made the overt exaggeration that, because General David Petraeus had sex with a woman who wasn’t his wife, it called into question everything he had achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan. If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. It’s beyond farcical.

And yet...General Petraeus is no longer the director of the C.I.A. The revelation that General Petraeus had sex with a woman who wasn’t his wife caused the media in Washington to completely re-examine his life and achievements. And the immediate conclusion was: it was all a myth.

Here are a few examples of over-reaction, led by perhaps the most cited example by Spencer Ackerman.

How I Was Drawn Into the Cult of David Petraeus

“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.”

The Petraeus Myth

“With the reign of King David coming to a fast and tawdry end, a few writers have asked a great question: How did the media get so duped by the myth of David Petraeus?”

Cult of David Petraeus: Did Media Perpetuate a Myth?

“The now-retired four-star general, who ran the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was routinely called the greatest strategic military mind of his generation. While an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, has no direct connection to Mr. Petraeus's military achievements, it does take the glow off the cult of personality that had developed around him. And defense reporters are now acknowledging they played no small part in burnishing that once-shining image.”

The Man and His Myth

“Of more abiding interest is what sort of legacy an extraordinary career has left. The General’s heroic status as the epitome of the modern soldier-statesman-scholar was rooted in both real achievement and a myth of his own and others’ creation.”

"David Petraeus: the downfall of a man and myth

“It was not the sexual indiscretion that shocked America, so much as the contrast it presented between the carefully cultivated myth of Gen Petraeus – the tall, ascetic fitness freak with a name like a Greek god who affected weariness at the hero status that was thrust upon him – and the reality it exposed.”

Myth. Cult. Illusion. Fraud. What should be a throwaway line in the second to last paragraph of his obituary will now be the opening paragraph. Like Schwarzenegger, an entire life’s accomplishments have been over-shadowed by a footnote. Fortunately, as some of the writers above point out, no one really believes that General Petraeus’ affair reflects on his time as the commander of forces in Iraq. One man’s bedroom antics shouldn’t really affect his performance review, even if he is the head of the CIA.

But it did give critics an opening. Despite the perceived success of the surge in Iraq, many academics grumbled for years that P-4 benefited from a confluence of events. They also complained that the media couldn’t/wouldn’t pick up the story. Many of these critics used Afghanistan to buttress their arguments, “See counter-insurgency doesn’t work!”

So when the media discovered that the beloved General Petraeus had had an affair, the rewriting began. These same critics, who had previously been ignored, had an opening. And a “legend” was destroyed.

I don’t care if the media was entranced by the FBI investigating General Petraeus. (That story was so bizarre they should have been.) But the media shouldn’t use it to rewrite history. Paula Broadwell sleeping with General Petraeus says nothing about the decline in violence in Iraq from 2008-2010. (Though, Iraq is still more violent in raw numbers than Afghanistan.) Paula Broadwell might have written an excessively complimentary biography of Petraeus that now can’t be trusted for its academic impartiality, but her actions don’t call into question counter-insurgency theory.

Instead, I agree with Glenn Greenwald. The national security apparatus of America is nigh untouchable. Criticism of soldiers--of any rank--just isn’t tolerated...even when it needs to be. The military is the most respected institution in America, which makes it immune from criticism, a common On Violence complaint. The media needs a sex scandal to criticize it.

If critics of population-centric counter-insurgency were right in a historical/strategic sense, the logic of their arguments and quality of their evidence should change the minds of the intellectual class, not the sexual impropriety of the man most associated with counter-insurgency theory.

Because that would be ridiculous.