In the Arena

Petraeus, Yin and Yang

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We have new evaluations of David Petraeus this week, in New York Magazine and the New Yorker. The New Yorker piece is by the great war correspondent and author, Dexter Filkins. The New York piece is by former theater critic Frank Rich. They couldn’t be more different.

Filkins sees the world from the streets up; he is not only a great reporter, but also a fine writer and military analyst. Rich sees the world from 30,000 feet and in only one way: everything is theater. There is, of course, a little bit of the theater critic in all of us who cover politics–internally, at Time Magazine, we call my accounts of presidential speeches and debates “theater criticism.” But theater criticism without context, without substantial knowledge of the issues at stake, is entertainment, not journalism. And that is what Rich, who at times is capable of powerful political insights, is guilty of here.

Filkins covered Petraeus, as I did; and was impressed by him, as I was (and am). His evaluation of the general’s worth is very similar to mine: Petraeus was a creative force who helped teach the U.S. Army the proper way to fight the sort of guerrilla insurgencies that we have confronted over the past 10 years. He did a fine job in Iraq, tamping down the chaos, saving Iraqi and American lives in the process–and enabling us to leave the terrible mess that we had made with a certain rough order restored. He was less successful–and downright wrong, at times–in Afghanistan…although his counterinsurgency strategy has proved successful, for the moment, in the part of Afghanistan that I visited repeatedly, Kandahar Province. Schools are open there now that were closed by the Taliban. A degree of peace and security have been restored.

Filkins doesn’t mention this, but I believe the general’s finest, most lasting achievement was his renovation of Army training to emphasize moral decision-making, under pressure with incomplete information–the essence of counterinsurgency–as well as creativity and entrepreneurialism. The young officers I saw providing governance in towns, especially in Kandahar Province, are coming home with a skill set that will make them excellent public servants and, I hope, politicians.

Did Petraeus have faults? Well, of course. And pride was obviously one of them. He also violated a sacred code of ethics. If you are leading troops into battle, you must be exemplary–and fraternizing with an officer of lower rank raises questions of favoritism and moral relativism that can’t be tolerated.

But judging Petraeus by his pride and peccadillos–his willingness to socialize with sordid sycophants in Tampa–without also acknowledging the substance of his record is like judging Bill Clinton on Monica Lewinsky and Marc Rich alone. Yes, we do go overboard venerating heroes in this country. It’s inevitable in this media atmosphere. But we also go overboard when it comes to tearing them down. David Petraeus saved lives and restored order in Iraq. He added great substance to military theory and vastly improved military training. I suspect that he knows a bit more about human fallibility now than he did a year ago, and such knowledge will prove useful if he decides to serve his nation again in some capacity, as I hope he does.