The call, from one retired four-star general to another, was somber. Just-departed CIA chief Dave Petraeus’ voice – usually assertive, buffed by optimism — was lower, slower and more subdued than his former comrade had ever heard.
“I really screwed up,” he told Jack Keane, a retired four-star general — like Petraeus — who stepped down as the Army’s No. 2 officer in 2003. “This is my fault, and I’m devastated by the pain and suffering that I’ve caused.”
No kidding. But this is the rest of the story of “General Peaches,” whose career reached its apogee turning the Iraq war around in 2007, and whose professional and personal lives crashed and burned last Friday when he acknowledged an extra-marital affair, resigning from government service for the first time since he arrived at West Point as a cadet in 1970.
“Peaches” was the nickname Petraeus picked up as a kid when pals found “Petraeus” too tough to say. Over the past decade, many Americans, in and out of uniform, learned how to say “Petraeus.” Most journalists even learned how to spell it.
Fellow four-stars felt Petraeus’ pain after he acknowledged his affair Friday with a woman identified as Paula Broadwell, a fellow West Pointer (he, Class of ’74; she, Class of ’95) and author of All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. Some of those who retired at lower ranks, not so much.
“I don’t think this personal indiscretion, in and of itself, could possibly trump his achievements and accomplishment,” says Keane, one-time Army vice chief of staff and a key architect, as a retired four-star general, of the Iraq surge led by Petraeus. “It’s comparable to what World War II generals achieved.”
“Great soldier, statesman and patriot,” Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s No. 2 officer until earlier this year, says. “He and his wonderful family are in our thoughts and prayers.”
“He is one of the most talented and dedicated officers we have produced since World War II,” says Barry McCaffrey, who ran U.S. Southern Command before retiring with four stars in 2001. “I have know him since he was a captain. From the start Dave saw the whole picture and had the moral courage and leadership to finally get the armed forces on the right strategy in Iraq. His tactical and political cleverness pulled us back from a disaster.”
But not everyone sang Petraeus’ praises. “Petraeus is a remarkable piece of fiction created and promoted by neocons in government, the media and academia,” argues Douglas Macgregor, a retired and outspoken Army colonel and innovator, known for Breaking the Phalanx, his book taking the Army to task for the way it organizes and uses its ground forces.
“How does an officer with no personal experience of direct fire combat in Panama or Desert Storm become a division CDR in 2003, man who for 35 years shamelessly reinforced whatever dumb idea his superior advanced regardless of its impact on soldiers, let alone the nation, a man who served repeatedly as a sycophantic aide-de-camp, military assistant and executive officer to four stars get so far? How does the same man who balked at closing with and destroying the enemy in 2003 in front of Baghdad agree to sacrifice more than a thousand American lives and destroy thousands of others installing Iranian national power in Baghdad with a surge that many in and out of uniform warned against? Then, how does this same man repeat the self-defeating tactics one more time in Afghanistan? The answer is simple: Petraeus was always a useful fool in the Leninist sense for his political superiors — Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and Gates. And that is precisely how history will judge him.”
As noted, Macgregor can be outspoken.
Ralph Peters is another blunt-speaking retired Army officer and author. “When a man becomes more reputation than substance, his reputation had better be invulnerable,” he said of Petraeus’ plight. “Every successful man has encountered at least one Paula Broadwell. The smart ones don’t take her calls.”
THE RISE OF GENERAL PETRAEUS
Petraeus grew up just up the Hudson River from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the son of a Dutch sea captain and his librarian wife. As one of the nation’s leading Army officers, he combined his father’s globe-girdling sense of adventure with his mother’s bookish brains.
He knew how to cozy up to powerful military mentors even as a young cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point: he began dating Hollister Knowlton, the daughter of the academy’s superintendent, before his 1974 graduation and commissioning as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
Lieut. General William Knowlton served as superintendent at West Point from 1970 1974, matching Petraeus’ time there as a student. Petraeus’ father-in-law became perhaps his first important Army mentor: a veteran of four World War II military campaigns, he would go on to serve on the staffs of Army generals – and legends — Omar Bradley and Dwight D. Eisenhower (he died in 2008, 28 years after retiring from the Army).
“A striver to the max,” Petraeus’ yearbook said, “Dave was always ‘going for it’ in sports, academics, leadership, and even his social life.” He and Holly married two months after his graduation. They have two children; a son — now serving his second Army tour in Afghanistan — and a daughter, married last month.
Petraeus’ self-discipline was legendary, even in the military where discipline is an everyday trait. That makes his fall from grace all the more startling to former comrades. After a decade of admirably commanding U.S. troops in the nation’s two post-9/11 wars, the revelation of his acknowledged affair with Broadwell was like a Wallenda suddenly and surprisingly slipping without benefit of a net.
Petraeus was a buzz saw through the Army’s ranks during the first decade of the 21st Century. As a major general, he led the 101st Airborne to Mosul in firefights along the Euphrates River to great acclaim in 2003. He spoke up when he felt he needed to. “He was pretty good at being a constructive critic within the system,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a long-time friend and military scholar at the Brookings Institution. “When [Coalition Provisional Authority chief] Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army with the support of [senior Pentagon civilian in Iraq] Walt Slocombe, Petraeus challenged them. He said, `You guys are creating enemies for me.’
“This was a potentially fatal mistake and it needed to be addressed and confronted directly. Petraeus proved his willingness to take some personal risk for the good of the mission,” O’Hanlon adds. “He was saying things these people did not want to hear and they did not know he was about to become the most famous four-star general of the modern era. At the time, he was just one of their two-stars who had a reputation for speaking his mind, perhaps more than some people preferred.”
Petraeus’ appeal was international. “Very shortly after he arrived, we’re looking out the window of the Saddam’s Republican Palace and out the back there was this growing trailer park,” recalls British Brigadier General Nigel Aylwin-Foster, who was Petraeus’ deputy in training the Iraq military in 2004 in Baghdad. “He pointed to the trailer nearest our window and the entrance we used to get into the building. He told me that he was going to get his aide to arrange for him to have that trailer because it meant that he wouldn’t have to waste so much time getting from the trailer to work. That’s only a small little detail, but it exemplifies to me just how he would do everything he could to just get on with work.”
Another recollection: “He never came to breakfast – he had it brought to his desk – he didn’t want to waste any time.”
Petraeus raised eyebrows — in the Pentagon and elsewhere — when he penned an op-ed column for the Washington Post in September 2004 advocating his train-and-equip mission for the Iraqi military. It was basically pablum, but it was political pablum. It showed his willingness to color outside the lines.
When he didn’t slam-dunk the training assignment, he jumped at the chance in his follow-on three-star billet: to rewrite the Army’s counter-insurgency manual. He quickly moved on to the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. – long viewed as a backwater – to do just that.
“He learned from failure,” O’Hanlon says. “Because when he was lieutenant general there in Iraq, as head of the training command, it didn’t go so well. It taught him that giving the Iraqis technical skills and equipment wasn’t going to trump their political divisions if you could deal with those.”
From CGSC at Fort Leavenworth, he got to apply the retooled manual’s people-centric precepts as a full four-star general back in Iraq, where it succeeded as a part of the 2007 “surge” of 30,000 additional U.S. troops into the country over the objections of more traditional officers. Petraeus’ career crested when he led the surge and helped turn what had been a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites into episodic bombings and assassinations that continue to this day.
Keane cites Petraeus’s 2007 arrival in Iraq – for a third tour there – as the peak a military career studded with successes. “A lot of people truly did not understand how far the war in Iraq had gone in terms of our failure,” Keane says. “Iraq was clearly a fractured state and about to go off the cliff, we were in the throes of suffering a humiliating defeat.” (Ironically – and perhaps in an indictment of the way the country selects its leaders — Petraeus’ predecessor in Iraq, General George Casey, was awarded with the plum assignment as Army chief of staff after leaving Baghdad).
“While many people wanted more troops in Iraq, he knew we needed a new strategy; more troops using the old strategy, you still fail,” Keane says. “Just saying it’s a new strategy is one thing, but actually changing what all the troops were doing is quite significant. The strategy he put in place was to protect the population by bringing the troops out from the big bases and employing them at the platoon level in Iraqi neighborhoods, where they would eat, sleep and patrol day and night.”
Of course, rejiggering a strategy is only half the fight. “To get an Army that’s already fighting a war to change in stride to a total different military strategy on the ground, and to get everybody on the same page – was accomplished by the sheer force of Dave Petraeus’ will,” Keane says. “He changed the attitude in the multi-national headquarters he was now commanding, almost overnight, by convincing them, that despite the fact we were indeed losing this war, it was not hopeless and that we can win, and we would win. He believed it himself, and he communicated that confidence to them.”
President Bush tapped him to head U.S. Central Command in 2008 – one of the military’s top assignments. (He also drove the Pentagon crazy by repeatedly dealing directly with Petraeus and calling him “Dave”.) His selection represented a kick in the teeth to old-school Army officers and their vanishing dreams of massive tank battles and artillery skirmishes (some of whom privately called Petraeus “King David” for his high self-regard and chumminess with reporters and other alien life forms).
The choice made clear that then-defense secretary Robert Gates wanted commanders able to carry out the messy, irregular kind of combat championed by Petraeus that Gates saw the U.S. fighting for years to come. It reinforced the message the defense chief had just delivered to young Air Force and Army officers, where he criticized their leaders for devoting too much time and effort to future potential wars, and not enough to the real wars now underway.
“The kinds of conflicts that we’re doing, not just in Iraq but in Afghanistan, and some of the challenges that we face elsewhere in the region and in the Central Command area, are very much characterized by asymmetric warfare,” Gates said shortly after the White House announced Petraeus’ nomination. “And I don’t know anybody in the United States military better qualified to lead that effort.”
But Petraeus’ sure-footedness escaped him in July 2009 when he made the Air Force the butt of one of his jokes. Speaking to an annual Marine Corps Association Foundation dinner, Petraeus praised the leathernecks while taking tongue-in-cheek shots at both his own service and the Air Force. “A soldier is trudging through the muck in the midst of a downpour with a 60-pound rucksack on his back. `This is tough, he thinks to himself,’” Petraeus began. “Just ahead of him trudges an Army Ranger with an 80-pound pack on his back. `This is really tough,’ he thinks. And ahead of him is a Marine with a 90-pound pack on, and he thinks to himself, `I love how tough this is,’” Petraeus said to appreciative cheers from his audience.
“Then, of course, 30,000 feet above them, an Air Force pilot flips aside his ponytail,” he added to howls of laughter and applause from the Marines. “I’m sorry — I don’t know how that got in there — I know they haven’t had ponytails in a year or two — and looks down at them through his cockpit as he flies over. `Boy,’ he radios his wingman, `it must be tough down there.’”
Although Petraeus quickly added “all joking aside,” the collateral damage was already done. Air Force partisans got wind of the comments made by the chief of the U.S. Central Command and tracked them down to the Marine Corps Association website. It contained a copy of Petraeus’ prepared remarks — including the ponytail crack — and a video of his talk. The Air Force Association daily newsletter called Petraeus’ remarks “beyond outrageous” and said they “belittled the contributions of the Air Force to the joint force.” The association, a non-profit educational group that supports the service, said the comment is “symptomatic of the long-held belief of many ground commanders that airpower is no longer, if it ever was, relevant.” The episode showed that, despite his skills and education, sometimes Petraeus was tone-deaf.
He remained at Central Command until Army General Stan McChrystal’s staff forced their boss out of a job by speaking ill of their civilian masters in June 2010. President Obama fired McChrystal and Petraeus effectively took a demotion to replace him as commander of the Afghan campaign.
MISSING THE BRASS RING
Petraeus had always wanted to come back before the Senate Armed Services Committee for a third confirmation hearing. But he was hoping it would be for promotion to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — not a demotion to run one of two wars he had been overseeing as chief of U.S. Central Command.
Obama and his camp had been somewhat leery of Petraeus — there was just a whiff of desperation in the air when they tapped him to succeed McChrystal – and the stakes couldn’t have been higher. When Bush signed off on Petraeus’ plan for the Iraq surge, the President was near the end of his second term. This time around, Obama was left to wonder if he could win a second term, and Petraeus suddenly loomed large in his re-election hopes.
Obama was determined to keep Petraeus at arms-length, several links away in the chain of command. Pentagon officials exulted at the change; there would be far less direct communication between the commander-in-chief and his most famous commander.
When he assumed command in Afghanistan, Petraeus’ pragmatic side came into view: he stepped up attacks on the Taliban and worried less about protecting civilians, the key tenet of the counter-insurgency manual he helped revise.
But such practicality only took him so far. Pentagon official say the Obama White House dashed Petraeus’ goal of serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – the nation’s top military officer – out of fear he would seek to slow down the U.S. troop pullout from Afghanistan. Instead, he ended up — out of uniform — running the CIA.
Petraeus seemed different from most Army generals, and he was. In addition to his West Point education, he attended the Army’s Command and General Staff College, taught at West Point, and earned a Princeton Ph.D. in international relations in 1987. While he never brandished his education as a weapon, he wielded it as a tool to burnish his evolving reputation as the nation’s pre-eminent post-9/11 military commander.
He was like the kid saving for a new and costly bike: he bided his time, toiling in anonymity – but close to power — carrying bags for Army generals like NATO commander John Galvin, Army chief of staff Carl Vuono, and Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Some colleagues criticized him for spending too much time with the brass, and not enough with the troops.
Petraeus, who in person seemed to be a coiled spring perpetually under tension, didn’t hide his ambition. It burned brightly, and kept him from becoming close friends with many comrades. Instead, he relied on a coterie of junior officers, many of whom had served multiple tours with him in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.
Nor did he fit the mold of a traditional back-slapping, hale-fellow-well-met Army officer. Instead, he had the aura of a cerebral general, a whip-smart but somewhat aloof commander who knew – or at least you suspected he believed – that he was the smartest guy in the war room.
He raised eyebrows when he invited outsiders into his war rooms to question strategy and sent them out in military aircraft as professional second-guessers.
“The man has always been controversial, and therefore his legacy was going to be controversial,” says Stephen Biddle, a military expert at George Washington University and the Council on Foreign Relations who served on three Petraeus advisory teams – one for Afghanistan, one for Iraq, and one when the general took over Central Command.
Biddle fears the lack of any formal review of the U.S. military’s successes and failures in the post-9/11 wars will make Petraeus’ fall from grace cast a long shadow over the conflicts.
“It’s interesting that the Army, and the military in general, is not doing a big formal review of what went well and what went badly since 2001 -– not in the sense of what we did after World War II and the Strategic Bombing Survey, or that the Air Force did after 1991,” says Biddle. “If you’re not going to do this formally, it’s going to happen in hallway conversations – informally. And this kind of thing could have a bigger impact on hallway-conversation corporate memory than it would on a formal study.
“You can’t make a rigorous argument that whether Dave Petraeus had an affair leaving the military should affect the way we think about counter-insurgency – there’s no logical connection there at all,” Biddle says. “And yet, it’s probably going to affect people’s perception of the man, and you can imagine if the primary way the military comes to grips with its experience is in informal, person-to-person conversation, that this could have the effect of weakening his advocacy and strengthening his detractors.”
Biddle is stunned by what happened. “Petraeus is one of the most disciplined humans who ever walked the face of the Earth, and it’s certainly very surprising that this happened to him,” he says. “I find the analogy to John Edwards kind of interesting, personally,” he adds, referring to the North Carolina senator and 2008 Democratic presidential candidate and his videographer, Rielle Hunter. “Here are two very accomplished, very ambitious, very self-aware people, who both fell for their biographer. A certain degree of narcissism looked like it had something to do with both men’s falls.”
O’Hanlon of Brookings also advised Petraeus while he was still in uniform, and attended graduate school with him at Princeton. He says Petraeus represented that minority of military officers willing to challenge the system, instead of merely muddling along.
“The respect for tradition – the old general with the drawl and the tough guy and not necessarily the biggest intellect – that has probably been, more often than not, the stereotypical Army leader,” O’Hanlon says. “Petraeus was the opposite – he was brilliant, he was slightly iconoclastic – not to the point of being suicidal, but to the point of being willing to challenge prevailing ideas once he felt there was a strong case to do so – and he did it politely, professionally and in a politically savvy way.”
Two accidents nearly killed Petraeus: in 1991, a soldier tripped, discharging his M-16 that fired a slug into Petraeus’ chest, and nine years later his parachute collapsed when he was 60 feet off the ground, smashing his pelvis. But he remained – and remains – in excellent shape, out-running younger officers in his final Army tours with 6-minute miles.
“I learned very early on you don’t go running with General Petraeus,” recalls Aylwin-Foster, his 2004 deputy in Baghdad. “`He kept on saying to me, `Nigel we’ve got to get you out for a run.’ We’re all fit in the army, but people had warned me: if he invites you out for a run, just find a reason not to do it because you’ll start off at a little jog, chatting away about whatever, and then a few miles later he’s just getting faster and faster and faster.” So Aylwin-Foster never ran with Petraeus.
Some former senior officers fret over the gap Petraeus’ sudden departure signals. “It breaks my heart,” says retired Army major general Robert Scales, a military historian, Petraeus friend and former head of the Army War College. “Over the last 10 years, whenever Dave showed up, the right grand operational solution seems to have taken hold,” Scales says. “I believed that happened in 2003 in Iraq, in 2006-07, again in Iraq, and I believe it began to happen again in Afghanistan.
“It couldn’t happen at a worse time,” Scales says. “Here we are, intentionally creating a military vacuum. I don’t think anybody’s given a lot of thought to what the impact of this is – to have Petraeus walk away from the CIA at this time. Dave walks away with a unique set of skills and knowledge and associations and wisdom and historical depth and understanding of the region and the people that I don’t think any civilian can replicate, at least not any time soon.”
Speaking of history, Jack Keane pauses after comparing Petraeus to the nation’s World War II generals. “He didn’t fight a big war like they did,” he acknowledges. “But he took a war in Iraq where we were about to lose and turned it around. And he began to do the same in Afghanistan. Very few generals have achieved that distinction.”