A Phony Hero for a Phony War - NYTimes.com
The genius of General Petraeus was to recognize early on that the war he had been sent to fight in Iraq wasn’t a real war at all. This is what the public and the news media — lamenting the fall of the brilliant hero undone by a tawdry affair — have failed to see. He wasn’t the military magician portrayed in the press; he was a self-constructed hologram, emitting an aura of preening heroism for the ever eager cameras.
I spent part of the fall of 2003 with General Petraeus and the 101st Airborne Division in and around Mosul, Iraq. One of the first questions I asked him was what his orders had been. Was he ordered to “take Mosul,” I asked. No answer. How about “Find Mosul and report back”? No answer. Finally I asked him if his orders were something along the lines of “Go to Mosul!” He gave me an almost imperceptible nod. It must have been the first time an American combat infantry division had been ordered into battle so casually.
General Petraeus is very, very clever, which is quite different from stating that he is the brilliant tactician he has been described as. He figured if he hadn’t actually been given the mission to “win” the “war” he found himself in, he could at least look good in the meantime. And the truth is he did a lot of good things, like conceiving of the idea of basically buying the loyalties of various factions in Iraq. But they weren’t the kinds of things that win wars. In fact, they were the kinds of things that prolong wars, which for the general had the useful side effect of putting him on ever grander stages so he could be seen doing ever grander things, culminating in his appointment last year as the director of the C.I.A.
The thing he learned to do better than anything else was present the image of The Man You Turn To When Things Get Tough. (Who can forget the Newsweek cover, “Can This Man Save Iraq?” with a photo of General Petraeus looking very Princeton-educated in his Westy-starched fatigues?) He was so good at it that he conned the news media into thinking he was the most remarkable general officer in the last 40 years, and, by playing hard to get, he conned the political establishment into thinking that he could morph into Ike Part Deux and might one day be persuaded to lead a moribund political party back to the White House.
THE problem was that he hadn’t led his own Army to win anything even approximating a victory in either Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s not just General Petraeus. The fact is that none of our generals have led us to a victory since men like Patton and my grandfather, Lucian King Truscott Jr., stormed the beaches of North Africa and southern France with blood in their eyes and military murder on their minds.