WASHINGTON -- Why did Gen. David Petraeus do it? Why did Paula Broadwell do it? Did Gen. John Allen do it at all? And did Jill Kelley do it next to the caviar?
Those are the questions that have been hurtling around the hallways and reception rooms in our nation's capital. But there is another question that has become the one to focus on:
Did General Petraeus really have to resign once the macabre story started showing up on our TV screens? With no real criminal or military charges against him, could he not have ridden out this "simple love affair" with his biographer, who painted him as a combination of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower?
True, once the FBI got into the series of bizarre links among various levels of military actors, each day it became more difficult for Petraeus to unlink himself. His ladylove, Paula, had apparently done the unthinkable, sending barely veiled threats to Jill to stay away from her hero. (I'd still like to see the actual words.)
Heck, I'm so suspicious of those strange upstart creations, email, the Internet and Facebook, that I hardly ever wish anyone a "good afternoon" online without thinking it might be taken for one of those old movies titled "An Afternoon to Remember," or something like that. And all General Allen did was address Jill Kelley as "sweetheart"! Puh-lease!
I must pause to note that these infantile stories about our military leadership have been shown daily on TV channels next to other channels exhibiting the most coarse, disgusting programming possible. Too bad we can't make up our minds as a nation about what we think is acceptable behavior.
The military must have rules, you'll be told if you if you bring up such an impolite subject. Adultery is a crime in the military, and rules are necessary so that soldiers know their officers are top-drawer. Well, but, you answer smartly and without a moment's pause, General Petraeus was out of the military; he was head of the Central Intelligence Agency. Although, you say in your smart riposte, perhaps tossing your head for emphasis, this wasn't very "intelligent."
But let's get back to our central question. From the discussions I have seen on TV, most observers have said that Petraeus did not have to resign, unless some threat to national security were found, which it has not been. To name just a few of his forebears who have played around the edges of society's rules, how about Ike, FDR, JFK, Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clinton, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur and ... well, how much time do you have?
It's worth reminding ourselves that mores were different then. Not MY mother's, but society's. If a military or political leader had an affair and was discreet about it, not humiliating his wife -- and, perhaps, his mother -- he would be allowed to move along.
The only leader, I'm sorry to say, who put us in national danger was John F. Kennedy. His biographies tell how, when traveling around the country, he would have his aides pick up women on the street for him. One was an East German spy. So far as we know, no danger came from that ... so far as we will ever know.
One almost has to feel sorry for Petraeus. He is described as a brilliant general, apt strategist, charming interlocutor. But I see a beguilingly simple man, too, thrilled at the praise and unaware of all he really didn't do to earn it. He is praised for (1) helping to end the war in Iraq by paying off the Sunni tribesmen to fight (fine, but wouldn't it have been better not to have gotten in at all, thereby saving the money?), and (2) writing the book on counterinsurgency for the war in Afghanistan (but the war in Afghanistan was never a counterinsurgency war, and progress was made only when special forces led it at the very beginning).
There was such a need for the American people to "believe" in the war's legitimacy, while not being called upon to take part or sacrifice, that American generals in Iraq and Afghanistan were lionized. This, in part, is what happened to Petraeus. And it also happened to the soldiers in those wars, who were reflexively praised -- despite tactics that never were allowed in previous wars.
There have been excellent books analyzing the failures and absurdities of these two wars, the latest of which is "The Generals: American Military Command from WWII to Today," by Thomas E. Ricks, an experienced war-watcher.
"The failures of the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan were not the failures of frontline soldiers," Ricks writes. "American troops deployed to these wars were fit and well trained. However, training tends to prepare one for known problems; it is the job of military leaders to prepare for the unknown, the unpredictable and the unexpected. Many of the generals leading the Army were not mentally prepared for the wars they encountered."
Perhaps this is the next subject that Gen. Petraeus might take on. But, please, for our sakes, without a writer/biographer to help him with his subject.