By Peter Galuszka
Are we too in love with our military?
Forgive the pun, given the resignation of CIA director and former Army general David Petraeus in a sex scandal. But it still needs to be asked given the decade-long gush of praise for men and women in uniform, many of whom have some Virginia connection, either because they are based or from here.
To be sure, soldiers, sailors and Marines deserve lots of credit for their sacrifices fighting terrorism in South Asia, even though the need for the Iraq conflict remains questionable.
The sacrifice of some, however, has created a kind of admiration and marketing fest that has generated a climate of stardom that breeds excess and self-aggrandizement.
One can’t go to a Barnes & Noble or turn on cable television without being inundated with books and programs about special forces, in particular Virginia Beach-based SEAL Team Six. One SEAL’s book on the killing of Osama bin Laden, “No Easy Day,” continues to remain on best-seller lists. Advances for more can run in the six or seven figures.
SEALs are finding themselves so marketable that the Navy has trouble reining them in. One group got in trouble for serving as unauthorized consultants for computer game designers. If the SEALs are supposed to be so silent as well as deadly, why the orgy of self-promotion?
The same market aspect has very much to do with David Petraeus’s tragic self destruct. The highly-regarded commander in Iraq and Afghanistan got on the Harvard circuit with the usual business school BS books on “Leadership.” One such tome was penned with a ghost-writer’s help by former West Pointer Paula Broadwell and was seen as so fantastically gushy that Jon Stewart mocked it on his comedy news show. Broadwell, married, later got involved romantically with married Petraeus, leading to his demise and an embarrassing national scandal.
Her book, which did not get rave reviews, recalls a trend of a couple decades ago. Back then, corporate chief executives were in vogue. Everyone wanted to write the inside story of General Electric’s Jack Welch as “The Best Ever Leader,”but in the process missed some rather important parts of GE, such as how little taxes it actually pays in the U.S.
Another strange aspect is how mid-sized cities such as Tampa suddenly become major movers in the world of military power brokering. Tampa is home to MacDill Air Force Base, which hosts the Central Command that oversees South Asian wars and a special operations group.
I visited MacDill for a story a few years ago and it certainly seemed like a hotbed of tight security. But one wonders how a civilian doctor and his attractive, dark-haired wife, now badly in debt, move to the area and, with no direct military connection themselves, start making great friends of such high ranking officers as Petraeus and Marine Corps. Gen. John Allen.
Maybe it’s my latent paranoia from working for six years in Moscow, but if I were in the KGB, FSB or whatever it is today and I wanted to penetrate top brass in the U.S., one idea would be to plant socialite newbies in smaller base towns like Tampa, set them up as local civilian social lions with plenty of champagne and caviar and then wait for the 20,000 to 30,000 personal emails to come in from four-star generals. (The generals’ total cluelessness in email security is another topic).
The odd thing is that despite all of the star glitter, America’s success rate with generals in Iraq and Afghanistan hasn’t been so good. In 2009, Gen. David D. McKiernan was fired as commander in Afghanistan in a presidential spat. The next year, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal was let go after apparently making inappropriate comments about Vice President Joseph Biden during a rollicking interview with Rolling Stone. Now Petraeus is out at CIA and Allen’s next posting has been put on hold.
Oddly, there hasn’t been much public outcry. This is odd. George Patton faced intense public controversy when he slapped a solider in World War II. Douglas MacArthur was fired for defying President Harry Truman over Korea. Gen William Westmoreland was the focus of massive protests for his handling of the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
Today, there’s no outrage. Just book sales and talk shows.