The most unseemly aspect of the scandal surrounding David Petraeus is the gleeful Schadenfreude being exhibited by so many who are eager to kick a great man when he is temporarily down. One of the most egregious and nauseating examples is this New York Times op-ed by Lucian Truscott IV entitled “A Phony Hero for a Phony War.” It is insulting not only to Petraeus but to all those men and women who have served valiantly and at great risk in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Truscott is a West Point graduate with a famous name–his grandfather, Lucian Truscott Jr., was a notable general in World War II. Truscott IV, to judge by his preening description of himself, has rather less achievements to his name; he did not last long in the army and has made a career as a freelance writer and screenwriter, often sniping at the military establishment. He is apparently so in thrall to his grandfather and his contemporaries that he seems to think that no modern general can possibly measure up. “Iraq wasn’t a real war at all,” he sneers, which will come as news to the thousands of Americans killed there and the tens of thousands injured.
Then he attacks Petraeus for supposedly not leading “his own Army to win anything even approximating a victory in either Iraq or Afghanistan,” which rather ignores that Petraeus actually did deliver something close to victory in Iraq under extremely difficult circumstances in 2008–only to have his achievements squandered by the Obama administration. As for Afghanistan, he set the campaign on a course toward success even if he was not given the time–or resources–to see it through to as successful a conclusion as the campaign in Iraq.
Truscott continues: “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.” It seems that Patton and old man Truscott “were nearly psychotic in their drive to kill enemy soldiers and subjugate enemy nations”; they “chewed nails for breakfast, spit tacks at lunch and picked their teeth with their pistol barrels,” while “General Petraeus probably flosses.”
There is more of this same risible name-calling, including the truly astonishing claim that Petraeus is too concerned with his personal appearance (“never has so much beribboned finery decorated a general’s uniform”)–as if Petraeus were remotely in the same league as Patton who was known for his riding breeches, highly polished helmet, and ivory-handled pistols.
I search in vain for a serious point here. There is none. Rather this is sheer animus against Petraeus animated by runaway nostalgia for the Greatest Generation, which ignores the fact that most wars before and since World War II could not be ended by marching on the enemy’s capital to demand unconditional surrender. Where, after all, is the capital of the Taliban or al-Qaeda in Iraq? Petraeus and the troops under his command did extremely well in dealing with in dealing with a more diffuse enemy that could not simply be pounded into submission with massive firepower because he did not wear a uniform or control a well-defined territory.
“Guerrilla war is more intellectual than a bayonet charge,” T.E. Lawrence said. Petraeus was smart enough, dedicated enough, and capable enough to rise to the challenge of understanding and fighting that type of war. In the annals of counterinsurgency he is one of the all-time greats. Now, as payback for a lifetime of service, he gets insulted by sideline spitballers like Lucian Truscott IV.