An Ex-Army Shrink Ponders Ex-General Petraeus’ Fall

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Hardly Equilateral: General David Petraeus arrives at his Senate CIA confirmation hearing in June 2011 behind his wife, Holly, as his biographer and paramour, Paula Broadwell, second from the left, looks on.

I spent nearly a quarter-century in the Army, serving with David Petraeus. No, I didn’t know him, but like every retired female Army officer I have heard the question repeatedly over the past week: what do I think of the whole debacle?

Bottom line: I am not sure. I have as many questions as answers.

Of course, there are plenty of journalists who are opining, many of whom knew him personally. Although I didn’t – and only heard him speak once, at a graduation at the now-closed Walter Reed Army Medical Center – I’ve tried to put my thoughts into perspective.

— Is it this another example of sexual harassment within the military?

Not at all, based on what I have learned from news media. The affair was by all accounts consensual. He has told friends it didn’t begin until he had left the service. There are not reports of him having intimate interactions with others.

— Is there a culture of generals being overly-familiar with female subordinates?

That I have certainly seen. I vividly remember a four-star general in South Korea who threw his arm over my young captain’s shoulders every chance he got. But he was the exception rather than the rule.I think.

— Are sexual tensions heightened by repeated deployments over many years, where contacts with spouses back home are few?

Obviously. Especially in remote areas where the threat of death is constant, and there is fatalism about being killed any minute. “Gather the rose where you may,” sometimes seems to be the theme.

— With legal proceedings against other senior officers in the press lately, is there a culture of “I am above the law”?

That certainly could be: there have been stories forever about politicians and senior officers who cut corners, mismanage money, and have affairs. (Of course those peccadillos are true of the general populace as well. They just don’t get as much publicity.)

Some answers are more elusive, at least to me:

— How are troops expected to be celibate for nearly half of their prime adult years as a consequence of deployment?
— What is the consequent moral injury that may result from their relations with their loved ones?
— Is there a double-standard at play here?
— Is this a younger woman seducing an older man for his secrets? There are certainly shades of Cold War tales of female spies seducing generals.

As for General Petraeus…

One outstanding question, at least for me, is when the affair started. If this occurred while he was in uniform, we would be dealing with a far different situation, with undeniable effects on the morale, mental health and the “good order and discipline” of the troops.

As an alpha male who had led wars and faced Congress repeatedly, been lauded by the media and American public, was his testosterone level simply too high? Was his blind spot too big?

Is this a man in love with his own autobiography? That is consistent with the portrait David Cloud and Gregg Jaffe drew in their intriguing book The Fourth Star, on the careers of four Army generals, including Petraeus.

In Bob Woodward’s book,  Obama’s Wars, it appears that much of the pressure to launch the Afghanistan surge, and spend the last few years there as we have, was the direct result of Petraeus’ influence.

As one of my colleagues wrote me:

I am sure it would pain many soldiers to know that their futile efforts in Afghanistan were mostly the product of a sexually-frustrated narcissist’s subconscious compelling him to press for military action that would keep him relevant and fawned over by women he had a crush on while conveniently thousands of miles away from his wife.

Petraeus insists the affair happened after he left the Army, so perhaps my comrade is being too harsh.

Like many, I am saddened, titillated and jaded at what is going on.

As a media junkie, I find the story of the “great man brought down by hubris” strangely fascinating.

But, as a former Army officer, I am saddened by the scandal. I am concerned about its potential impact on the troops and mission in Afghanistan, especially since Marine General John Allen, the current commander there, has been drawn into the drama.

Finally, as a psychiatrist, I shrug. I have seen much worse.