David Petraeus and the Military's Culture of Celebrity

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The commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, US General David Petraeus (C) claps after British General Nick Parker (R) received a medal during a farewell ceremony in Kabul on September 28, 2010.

In all the news surrounding General David Petraeus’s resignation, and the investigation into the relationship between Petraeus, Paula Broadwell, Jill Kelley, and General John Allen, there’s a central question about military culture itself.

As Petraeus implemented his counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq, and then Afghanistan, he became a celebrity, an old-school military hero who seemed to have all the answers to America's messy conflicts abroad.

Spencer Ackerman interviewed Petraeus as a writer for Wired Magazine’s Danger Room blog, and he describes this as the "Cult of David Petraeus."

"Conversations with people close to Petraeus since his resignation from the CIA have been practically funereal. People have expressed shock, and gotten occasionally emotional," Spencer writes. "It turns out, [retired Army Colonel Pete] Mansoor sighed, 'David Petraeus is human after all.' I wonder where anyone could have gotten the idea he wasn’t."

Andrew Bacevich, visiting fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, is a professor of international relations who writes about military history and culture. Professor Bacevich has seen the military’s cult of leadership firsthand. 

"The obsession with the Paula Broadwell affair I think is entirely inappropriate," Bacevich says. "But, the useful aspect of bringing him down, as it were, is that it really ought to clear the path to enable us now, to invite us now, to examine the Petraeus myth, and by extension, the myth that the Iraq war ended in something akin to a success. It didn't."

Bacevich thinks that one unintended and largely unanticipated result of the all-volunteer force created post-Vietnam is that there is a "gap" between the military and the rest of society. "On the civilian side of the gap, that has created this deference to the military, this slogan of needing to support the troops," he says. This support is generally a good thing, but "shouldn't be a cause for checking your brain at the door." 

Ackerman agrees. "The further the distance is between civilian society and the military, the greater the likelihood is for an inappropriate, well-intentioned, but somewhat condescending and ultimately counter-productive adulation," he says.