18 de novembro de 2012 | 01h00
Unlike other countries, which have experienced in their flesh and bones the terrible consequences of military hubris, the ambitions of generals were never much of a threat to the American republic. So far as anyone knows, the country has never come close to a coup staged by the armed forces. Of course, democracy being the fragile, vulnerable institution that it is, the menace of a military coup haunts the national imagination. It has been the stuff of innumerable movies, the most famous of which is John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece, "Seven Days in May."
That movie was probably in part inspired by the showdown between President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur, the only time I can think of that the country came anywhere near the illegitimate assertion of military will in domestic politics. MacArthur made a series of public proclamations that contradicted Truman’s desire for a negotiated peace with North Korea—and its sponsor, China—calling for total war with North Korea, and seeming to want a direct conflict with China. Truman had no choice but to relieve MacArthur of his command.
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There had been other generals who publicly contradicted national policy, most notably General George Patton, who made clear his intention to wage war on the Soviet Union in the years following the Second World War. Patton also got his command taken away from him. The great scandal involving a general in modern times was the controversy over General William Westmoreland, who led the American war effort in Vietnam. Westmoreland was accused of underestimating the number of North Vietnamese troops in order to convince the American public that the war was winnable and worth committing rising numbers of soldiers to.
Westmoreland sued CBS, which had made the accusations, but then settled for a mere apology. He never disproved the charges, and what appeared to be his deceitfulness made a permanent scar on the national consciousness.Later generals followed in the footsteps of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who left the service to run for and win the presidency. But other than Eisenhower, no American general has been elected president in modern times—not, in fact, since Ulysses S. Grant won the presidency after his service during the Civil War. Wesley Clark ran for president in 2004, but never made it past the Democratic primary season. Colin Powell seriously considered a run for the White House, but decided against it. Enter David Petraeus.
What marks Petraeus’s ambition as entirely contemporary is that it does not seem to extend beyond his vanity. He seems to have wanted to advance in his career, not because he hungered to be a leader, or yearned to apply his will to events, but merely because he wanted to advance in his career.
He married the daughter of the West Point superintendent and rose quickly through the ranks. Yet he did not see combat until the first Iraq War, when he commanded the 101st Airborne Division as a major general. I am not familiar with Petraeus’s exploits during that war, and he sure does have a lot of metal on his jacket, but from what I know about generals, I would imagine that he spent most of his time in relative safety behind the lines. Generals, even major generals, don’t see much fighting.
On the other hand, as commander of American forces in Iraq, Petraeus was responsible for turning around the American effort there, leaving Iraq a much more stable place than when he arrived. How much of that is due to him, or to the men around him, or to intelligent political pressure that was applied by Obama, who—contrary to Petraeus’s recommendations, wanted to get out of Iraq as soon as possible—I have no idea.
What is clear is that Obama diverted what had clearly become Petraeus’s presidential ambitions by offering Petraeus the directorship of the CIA. And Petraeus, who seems reflexively to reach for the brass ring whatever it is, immediately accepted a position for which he had no qualifications whatsoever. The CIA and the military are so different in culture, politics and structure, that they might be separate planets. But prestige is prestige, and as director of the CIA, Petraeus found himself at the center of Washington social power. It is fitting that one of the agents of his downfall is a woman named Jill Kelley, whose only connection to the military is as the social doyenne of Tampa, Florida, where she met Petraeus and other generals who flocked to her high-status parties.
The hubris of MacArthur, Patton and Westmoreland derived from their strategic visions, as limited as they were. The more modest hubris of Eisenhower, Clark and Powell derived from their political visions. The hubris of Petraeus, like the modern-day Narcissus that he is, never got beyond the vanity of Petraeus. Just as Narcissus fell into his own reflection, so did Petraeus. Like John Edwards, whose fatal step was to have an affair with his video-biographer, Petraeus fell into his own image as it was being inflated, burnished, and reflected back to him by his own biographer, a woman named Paula Broadwell. Perhaps, in our selfish, self-obsessed age, the biographer is the true serpent in the garden.
Petraeus had no plots for a coup. He possessed no lust for national power. He pursued no machinations to fulfill a vision of national security. What drove him to his downfall was simply the desire to have cooed into his ear, again and again, the image of himself as a splendid hero and a magnficant specimen of masculinity.Was that some type of compensation for the fact that, despite all the decorations he likes to flaunt, he sent countless men to their deaths while never seeing actual combat himself?A general whose ambitions do not go beyond the bedroom mirror is a blessing for democracy. But how pathetic for the general himself.
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