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Our Modern Belisarius



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The implosion of the career of David Petraeus has led some, quite wrongly in my view, to suddenly dump on the general’s entire record, to the point of questioning his medaled dress uniform and the achievement in Iraq. The vast majority of his time in Iraq, Petraeus was no doubt dressed in camouflage almost indistinguishably from privates. His dress uniform back home might have appeared more Pattonesque than Eisenhower-like, but that distinction hardly is reason to question Petraeus’s character or record: Lee liked crisp impressive uniforms; Grant and Sherman did not. Wellington was often dandified in the field like Napoleon or Alexander, Caesar less so, but all were great generals and did not shirk danger. Petraeus in Iraq did not adopt Monty’s beret, MacArthur’s pipe, Ridgway’s grenade, or Patton’s pistols. He was more likely associated with a mundane laptop, not the sort of appurtenance designed to draw attention to himself.

For two years Petraeus, at great personal risk to his person, was ubiquitous in all the hot spots of war-torn Iraq. I doubt someone in that position slept more than two to three hours a night. I think his relationship with Broadwell and the entire covert e-mail business showed poor judgment, and there are still incongruities about his Benghazi narratives between September and last week, as well as the mystery of why exactly he resigned when he did, but that postwar trouble does not at all mar his leadership that saved a lost Iraq war — any more than Curtis LeMay’s disastrous decision to run with George Wallace as VP nullified his salvation of the B-29 campaign and reconstitution of SAC; or Patton’s near-inexplicable tirades meant that he was not the greatest mobile general America has yet produced; or Themistocles’s purported suicide in Persian-controlled Asia cancelled out what he did at Salamis.

It was not Petraeus’s decision to invade Iraq, and he had little say about the grand strategy and tactics of securing the country after the postwar violence and insurgency flared up between 2003 and 2006. Instead, quite late in the game he was asked to take over a conflict judged a lost cause by most in Washington; and yet when his tour was up, the war was not lost — mostly because of his leadership, which succeeded where others had not.

And while he may have given in to the celebrity and favorable press back in the states, his Iraq success in part originated in assembling a team of the finest American lieutenant-colonels and colonels since World War II, something that would have been impossible had Petraeus been the peacock narcissistic general of the current caricatures.

What makes this entire debacle so mystifying — and so tragically depressing — is not that Paula Broadwell and Benghazi exposed the “true” Petraeus who was some sort of mediocrity all along, but rather that the scandal brought down a truly historic and heroic figure who saved hundreds of American — and thousands of Iraqi — lives, and is now, at least for a few more months, to be associated more with a Gmail account than the miracle that the U.S. military accomplished between 2007 and 2008.

But as was true with the once-disgraced Belisarius, this too will pass . . .



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