General David Petraeus started to make cameos on the public stage during the latter George W. Bush years, arriving as a “man with a plan.” Plans having been in remarkably short supply, Petraeus was welcome. He was the “surge” guy in Iraq, quickly replacing Donald Rumsfeld as the face of the place. A surge goes like this: you put a whole lot more troops into a war zone where things aren’t going particularly well, so that you might soon get everybody out. (If it’s not necessarily a way to win a war, it’s proven to be good preparation for ending one.) This was in year five of the Iraq war. Lots of people believed this method worked and so Petraeus was asked, by a new president, to do it again in Afghanistan. He reported for duty. By this time Petraeus was no longer in the cameo business: he was a star brighter than any he wore on his shoulders.
We now know that those shoulders weren’t just attractive to weary congressmen and a pooped Pentagon. A career military woman who co-wrote the Petraeus biography also found them–and him–irresistible, to the detriment of his 37-year-old marriage and, potentially, national security. Petraeus had, of course, ascended to head-up the CIA, a position which requires discretion if not decency. Control if not rectitude. What are the odds that David Petraeus’ morality in the conduct of his duty, which affected millions of people and soldiers, was guided by the better angels of his nature and not by urges? What are the chances that this was his only self-interested and harmful mistake?