Leading geopoliticist Robert Kaplan, writing under the Stratfor masthead, has made his views very clear on generals whose human flaws have caused their downfall to the detriment of their nations. As the original is a sharable-but-subscribers-only piece, the pith of it is reproduced herewith:
Now everyone knows that CIA Director David Petraeus was unfaithful to his wife and that former top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal made improper remarks to a journalist. Therefore, these two Army generals were removed from their jobs — Petraeus recently and McChrystal two years ago — and publicly humiliated.
Let me add some perspective regarding the careers of these two men.
In December 2006, just before Petraeus took command of all U.S. forces in Iraq and when McChrystal was in charge of counterterrorism there, Baghdad was sustaining 140 suicide bombs per month, with dozens killed in many attacks. In December 2007, largely because of the efforts of both men, that figure was reduced to five per month. The civilian lives saved as a consequence numbered in the thousands or tens of thousands per year. That’s real humanitarianism — unlike the faux humanitarianism often heard at international meetings.
Now let me add some perspective on three other Army generals, who had clean public records and thus were never humiliated to nearly the same extent by the media: Tommy Franks, Ricardo Sanchez and George Casey. According to Thomas E. Ricks’ new book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, among other sources, Franks did not plan sufficiently for the post-invasion stabilization of Iraq, Sanchez allowed an insurgency to start and mushroom there and Casey allowed that insurgency to continue without taking creative countermeasures. Franks and Sanchez were arguably guilty of incompetence according to Ricks and others, and Casey was by almost all accounts a mediocrity in over his head as commander in Baghdad. The 140 suicide bombs per month in Baghdad with which Petraeus and McChrystal had to contend were the product of the failed generalships of Franks, Sanchez and Casey.
Petraeus, by contrast, conceived (with help from the Marines) of an alternative kind of war (counterinsurgency), implemented it in the midst of an ongoing conflict and taught his army how to employ it. In the process, he made better use of McChrystal’s skills than had previous American commanders. As a consequence, with the arguable exceptions of generals Matthew Ridgway in Korea and Creighton Abrams in Vietnam, Petraeus ranks as perhaps the greatest American Army general since George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in World War II.
The result: Petraeus was brought down by what, according to the New York Times, might well have been an invasion of privacy by the FBI, even as McChrystal had his reputation irreparably damaged by an aggressive Rolling Stone reporter.
In other words, we erect gods and we get — sorry — human beings. Not only that, we get human beings under severe stress who are, by nature of their chemistry and circumstances, imperfect.
Be careful about demanding moral perfection from our leaders, civilian and military. In our personal lives we may be governed by a private morality in which someone like Petraeus can be found wanting. But in the public life of a nation, leaders must be judged by what they accomplish on behalf of the citizenry as a whole: that is, what they accomplish for the greater good. Geopolitics is a world governed by a morality of public results rather than a morality of private intentions. For if it is moral perfection that you want, you’ll often get mediocrity and occasional incompetence as a result.
To which Roger Lucy, a former Canadian diplomat and one of the Tehran Embassy Canadians who got redacted out of Argo, adds the following counterpoint:
…regardless of what they actually did, both Generals showed remarkably poor judgement: McC by allowing a reporter from a left-wing magazine to have such intimate access to his inner councils; Petreaus not necessarily so much for beginning the affair (I suspect she had him in her sights) but for not guarding against the “Fatal Attraction” type consequences that followed upon his ending it.
While one can think of Great Captains whose morals left something to be desired, by modern and in some cases even by their own standards (Caesar, Napoleon,Nelson, Marlborough and Alexander come to mind); many seem to have been happily and monogamously married (Belisarius, Rommel, Manstein, Wavell, Slim to name but a few) while others were monk-like in their devotion to the art of war (Charles XII, Bohemond of Antioch, Monty and Basil II the Bulgar-killer).
Where does one draw then line at accepting a general’s peccadilloes? Joan of Arc’s comrade in arms was Gilles de Reis was the model for Blue-beard.
To which your present contributor might point out that Basil the Bulgar-Slayer may have been monk-like in devotion to the art of war but he was certainly less than fastidious in how he pursued it…it having been Basil who allegedly (?) blinded 99 of every hundred prisoners after one battle, leaving the remaining soul one eye with which to lead his fellows home. Next to which, a G-mail or two might seem a preferable excess.
Eric Morse is Vice-Chair, Security Studies at Royal Canadian Military Institute and a writer of op-eds on foreign relations31f
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