Jan 28

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)


I don’t want to write about this. Honestly, I don’t. If you’re like, wow, this is the fourth post this week on the sex scandal, these guys are really obsessed with this thing. We’re not. We hate sex scandals. As a nation, aren’t we past this yet?

No, we’re not. So here are my thoughts on a general who put the “biog” in biography. And don’t worry, we’ve got thoughts on Benghazi and the poorly-named “Arab Winter” next week:

Thought 1: The actual Petraeus sex scandal.

Since we began On V, Michael C and I have wanted to write about nepotism in the military. Too many generals just happen to have well-placed fathers and uncles with stars on their shoulders.

Or fathers-in-law. General Petraeus, as I found out when the scandal broke, married the daughter of West Point’s well-connected, four star General superintendent in the early 1970s.

To me, this feels like the real sex scandal.

Thought 2: Why is everyone so surprised?

A number of reporters were shocked (shocked!) that a man of Petraeus’ stature and demeanor could have an affair. I wasn’t. I sort of assume that every mega-successful man (in every nation on Earth) is cheating on his wife...or at least the revelation that he is doesn’t surprise me. There’s not one Senator, Congressman, President, CEO, celebrity or General that, if it came out they were having an affair, I’d be like, “Wow.” (That includes Mitt Romney and Tim Tebow.)

Doubly so if the successful person in question is nerdy. Tiger Woods--a loner, obsessed with sport’s nerdiest game--all of a sudden becomes a multi-millionaire celebrity. Of course he cheated on his wife; he’s making up for a sex-deprived youth. (Girls in high school are not impressed by a star golfer. Porn stars? They love a dude worth over $300 million.)

Petraeus--nerdy, dedicated, obsessed, not exactly the best looking guy in the world--all of a sudden becomes one of the most famous men in America. And he cheated on his wife.

Does this surprise you? At all? It shouldn’t.

Thought 3: The most annoying quote I heard during this scandal.

On Meet the Press, David Gregory said, “I want to return to the personal aspect of Director Petraeus who had to resign because of his affair with Paula Broadwell.”

No, he didn’t. He didn’t have to resign, because he didn’t do anything illegal. He chose to resign, because he was embarrassed. There’s a difference.

Thought 4: I blame partisans.

Honestly? My first reaction to this Petraeus scandal was, “Thank God. Now he can’t run for president.”

And that’s the problem. Republicans and Democrats love taking down their rival politicians. And the media helps them do it. That’s why these scandals keep continuing. Democrats delight in taking down Republicans (Newt Gingrich, Chris Lee, John Ensign, David Vitter, Mark Foley, Mark Sanford and most famously, Larry Craig.) Republicans delight in taking Democrats down (the ur-sex scandal Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Anthony Weiner, John Wu, Gary Condit and the entire Kennedy family).

In our modern, politicized media, each side of the aisle now has news channels, magazines and websites chasing, promoting and reminding us about the sordid details. Both sides need to knock it off. In the end, it doesn’t make the country or the government any better, and that’s the real problem.

Finally, an apology.

Frankly, I didn’t want to write about this scandal. I hate the media’s obsession with sex scandals. And I’d write about that, except that’s pretty well-worn ground as well.

Yet, as we wrote last Monday, there weren’t that many interesting events in 2012, and the Petraeus scandal does have a lot of interesting angles to it, like over-classification to warrantless FBI searches to military morality. Since we’re spending a few weeks discussing a sex scandal, I just just wanted you to know that I’m aware of how cliched the whole thing is and how, by extension, we’re perpetuating this cycle.

I’m sorry.

Jan 24

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)

During my deployment to Iraq, the highlight of my day (besides churning through a DVD or two of The Wire before bed every night) was reading the Stars and Stripes “Letters” section. It looks like a traditional letter section. It reads like a traditional letter section. But it is anything but a normal letter section.

At that time--summer of 2010--”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” understandably dominated the political debates and news coverage in Stars and Stripes. And whenever one side published an op-ed, the Stripes letter section would reverberate for weeks with the response.

Then the chaplains entered the the fray...

For example, First Lieutenant (Chaplain) David Wooten compared the the Army to a family, writing, “Simply put, it is impossible for a family that embraces homosexuality to function normally.” That line caused letters to flood in for weeks.
Then, retired Colonel (Chaplain) Alexander Webster fired off an entire opinion piece on the irreparable harm sure to come if America repealed DADT. His best line says that rescinding DADT will, “shred the social and moral fabric of our armed forces.
According to the chaplain’s pre-DADT-repeal writing, getting rid of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would rend the moral fabric of America’s armed forces, filleting it into an ungodly, immoral, unethical horde of unrepentant sinners. Since Congress did repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”--and the military continued to function just fine--I haven’t felt the need to complain about the rhetorical inconsistencies of a handful of uber-vocal chaplains.

Until l’affaire Petraeus, which again brought the Army’s sex life to the front page. The New York Times ran the headline, “Petraeus Resignation Highlights Concern Over Military Officer Ethics.” The best example was Fox News digging up the over-hyped and patently false, “deployment sex pact”. (The idea that spouses leaving for Afghanistan agree to allow infidelity for the length of deployment. They don’t.)

I hadn’t realized that not only are our men and women in uniform required to defend the nation; apparently they must also be chaste warrior monks, chivalrous knights in shining khaki.
It turns out our soldiers are human. They aren’t as moral as our chaplains would have you believe, or as evil as anti-war advocates argued in previous wars. As I wrote before in “Where did God go in Afghanistan?”, our military looks like a cross-section of young America, about as moral and ethical as the country it serves.

I have one story that captures this best. Once my men and I were talking about pay. I said that a hundred dollars was a lot of money to me. My men responded that a hundred dollars isn’t a lot to a specialist (a junior soldier). Someone said, “Yeah, because a specialist will burn through that in an hour in a strip club.” Upon further discussion, we determined that the average specialist would probably go through a hundred bucks in a strip club in about fifteen minutes.

To be blunt, our soldiers go to strip clubs...just like regular Americans. Our soldiers have sex outside of marriage...just like regular Americans. As a result, strip clubs cling to military bases like venereal disease clung to World War II GIs. According to these two websites, soldiers have historically had wicked bad STD problems.

They curse...just like regular Americans. For example...

“The [Generation Kill] miniseries DVD extras include a discussion with the real Marines, during which this phenomenon is brought up: Ray Person tells a story about meeting people who, despite his own ability to validate the material, refused to believe American serviceman would even swear so much.”

From the entry on Generation Kill at TVtropes.org

They get in fights...just like regular Americans. And they always have. Sebastian Junger captures this pretty well in War:

“There were four platoons in the company, and of them all, Second Platoon was considered the best-trained and in some ways the worst-disciplined. The platoon had a reputation for producing terrible garrison soldiers men who drink and fight and get arrested for disorderly conduct and mayhem but who are extraordinarily good at war. Soldiers make a distinction between the petty tyrannies of garrison life and the very real ordeals of combat, and poor garrison soldiers like to think it's impossible to be good at both.”

To be clear, because people will misread this, the military isn’t any more or less moral than any other organization in America. It’s simply a collection of (mostly young) people who want to serve their country. And young people curse, get in fights and go to strip clubs. The military isn’t, and shouldn’t try to be, a bastion of morality. Or a bastion for America’s truly religious. It is and should be a volunteer force of men and women--of all colors and religions and cultures--who want to fight to defend America.

Chaplains and journalists should understand that.

(By the way, in my experience, chaplains rock. I say again, chaplains were a bright spot of my time in the military. But these were chaplains that didn’t usually didn’t write letters to Stars and Stripes.)

Jan 23

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2012", please click here.)

Here’s one civilian’s take on why the military is less effective than the private sector: you can get fired for cheating on your wife.

Though we hate writing about sex scandals--as we wrote last Monday--this Petraeus fiasco has way too many interesting subplots. The most important, most telling detail that came out of the whole thing was the revelation that our innovative, technologically-superior, thoroughly-modern military still adheres to a set of rules and regulations that 18th century Puritans would find reasonable. Apparently, in the 21st century military, you can still get court martialed for cheating on your wife.

Really? Really?

Here’s a copy of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, article 134, paragraph 60. Two sections stand out. First, it opens by explaining, “(1) That the accused wrongfully had sexual intercourse with a certain person; (2) That, at the time, the accused or the other person was married to someone else...” It ends by stating, “Maximum punishment. Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 1 year.” In layman's terms, prison. For a year.

Now, one could argue that the middle section is somewhat more nuanced. Again and again, it points out that, “To constitute an offense under the UCMJ, the adulterous conduct must either be directly prejudicial to good order and discipline or service discrediting.” Except that the sentence above it reads, “Adultery is clearly unacceptable conduct...” So it doesn’t matter if the next section says that it has to affect good order; all adultery affects good order.

Somewhat softening the law, in 2002 George Bush...

“...further discouraged adultery prosecutions by issuing an executive order that clarified the circumstances that might necessitate legal action. Although the order maintained that "adultery is clearly unacceptable conduct," it also listed a variety of factors that commanders should take into consideration before proceeding with a court martial. These include the accused's rank, the impact of the affair on the involved parties' job performance, and whether any of the hanky-panky took place while the accused was on the clock.”

Except that, in 2003, the military charged Captain James Yee with adultery, not because his affair affected good order, but because they couldn’t pin anything else on him. If a law is on the books, it’s on the books. Until the military removes the law, it hasn’t really entered the 21st century.

Imagine if we applied this 18th century law to the rest of America. First off, there goes the NBA. Since they work in the public sphere, adultery actually would be “discrediting”. The NBA then wouldn’t exist...or it would and Jimmer Fredette would be its LeBron James. And in the NFL, Manti T’eo would be this year’s number one draft pick.

Hollywood? Goodbye actors. And directors. And producers. And everyone associated with filming movies from the production assistants to studio heads.

We’d have no books for kids to read in English class.

I’d guess that, at least, thirty percent of the corporations in America wouldn’t have CEOs. And at least four American presidents would have been fired. (To be fair, we tried this in the nineties.) Hell, a lot of church pulpits would go empty.

It all made me think of this quote from the Simpson’s episode where Milhouse's dad gets a divorce.

Cracker Factory Executive: Kirk, crackers are a family food, happy families. Maybe single people eat crackers, we don't know. Frankly, we don't want to know. It's a market we can do without.

Kirk: So, that's it after 20 years? "So long. Good luck?"

Cracker Factory Executive: I don't recall saying "good luck."

In short, the military is the executive at the cracker factory. Soldiers are adults. And adults have affairs. I don’t condone cheating. (Among people my age, I am more against cheating than most.) But that doesn’t mean I support laws enforcing anti-adultery regulation.

Now, I can see the counter-argument: the private sector does have checks and balances on sexual conduct. Mainly, bosses can’t pressure subordinates into having sex with them, which is a good thing. Sexual harassment is illegal and should be. Officers can’t have sex with subordinates because that’s sexual harassment. And both the public and private sector have laws against that.

But regulating everything else? Well, it’s just another example of our traditional, staid military not changing...for the worse.

Jan 22

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2012", please click here.)

This Christmas, Eric C and I wanted two books. The first was The Signal and the Noise, by “statistics witch” Nate Silver. The second? Arnold Schwarzenegger's autobiography Total Recall.

We love Schwarzenegger who is, by any measure, an amazing individual. He won Mr. Olympia seven times. He became the world’s biggest movie star. He served as California’s governor for two terms. And then there’s the stuff people don’t know, like how he took community college classes when he first got to America to learn English and business. Or how he took advantage of California’s booming real estate market through the 80s and 90s to multiply his wealth several times over.

Yet, whenever we’ve talked about the most famous Austrian since Mozart, our friends just want to talk about the kid he fathered with his maid.


When we started this series, I made the overt exaggeration that, because General David Petraeus had sex with a woman who wasn’t his wife, it called into question everything he had achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan. If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. It’s beyond farcical.

And yet...General Petraeus is no longer the director of the C.I.A. The revelation that General Petraeus had sex with a woman who wasn’t his wife caused the media in Washington to completely re-examine his life and achievements. And the immediate conclusion was: it was all a myth.

Here are a few examples of over-reaction, led by perhaps the most cited example by Spencer Ackerman.

How I Was Drawn Into the Cult of David Petraeus

“Like many in the press, nearly every national politician, and lots of members of Petraeus’ brain trust over the years, I played a role in the creation of the legend around David Petraeus. Yes, Paula Broadwell wrote the ultimate Petraeus hagiography, the now-unfortunately titled All In. But she was hardly alone (except maybe for the sleeping-with-Petraeus part). The biggest irony surrounding Petraeus’ unexpected downfall is that he became a casualty of the very publicity machine he cultivated to portray him as superhuman.”

The Petraeus Myth

“With the reign of King David coming to a fast and tawdry end, a few writers have asked a great question: How did the media get so duped by the myth of David Petraeus?”

Cult of David Petraeus: Did Media Perpetuate a Myth?

“The now-retired four-star general, who ran the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was routinely called the greatest strategic military mind of his generation. While an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, has no direct connection to Mr. Petraeus's military achievements, it does take the glow off the cult of personality that had developed around him. And defense reporters are now acknowledging they played no small part in burnishing that once-shining image.”

The Man and His Myth

“Of more abiding interest is what sort of legacy an extraordinary career has left. The General’s heroic status as the epitome of the modern soldier-statesman-scholar was rooted in both real achievement and a myth of his own and others’ creation.”

"David Petraeus: the downfall of a man and myth

“It was not the sexual indiscretion that shocked America, so much as the contrast it presented between the carefully cultivated myth of Gen Petraeus – the tall, ascetic fitness freak with a name like a Greek god who affected weariness at the hero status that was thrust upon him – and the reality it exposed.”

Myth. Cult. Illusion. Fraud. What should be a throwaway line in the second to last paragraph of his obituary will now be the opening paragraph. Like Schwarzenegger, an entire life’s accomplishments have been over-shadowed by a footnote. Fortunately, as some of the writers above point out, no one really believes that General Petraeus’ affair reflects on his time as the commander of forces in Iraq. One man’s bedroom antics shouldn’t really affect his performance review, even if he is the head of the CIA.

But it did give critics an opening. Despite the perceived success of the surge in Iraq, many academics grumbled for years that P-4 benefited from a confluence of events. They also complained that the media couldn’t/wouldn’t pick up the story. Many of these critics used Afghanistan to buttress their arguments, “See counter-insurgency doesn’t work!”

So when the media discovered that the beloved General Petraeus had had an affair, the rewriting began. These same critics, who had previously been ignored, had an opening. And a “legend” was destroyed.

I don’t care if the media was entranced by the FBI investigating General Petraeus. (That story was so bizarre they should have been.) But the media shouldn’t use it to rewrite history. Paula Broadwell sleeping with General Petraeus says nothing about the decline in violence in Iraq from 2008-2010. (Though, Iraq is still more violent in raw numbers than Afghanistan.) Paula Broadwell might have written an excessively complimentary biography of Petraeus that now can’t be trusted for its academic impartiality, but her actions don’t call into question counter-insurgency theory.

Instead, I agree with Glenn Greenwald. The national security apparatus of America is nigh untouchable. Criticism of soldiers--of any rank--just isn’t tolerated...even when it needs to be. The military is the most respected institution in America, which makes it immune from criticism, a common On Violence complaint. The media needs a sex scandal to criticize it.

If critics of population-centric counter-insurgency were right in a historical/strategic sense, the logic of their arguments and quality of their evidence should change the minds of the intellectual class, not the sexual impropriety of the man most associated with counter-insurgency theory.

Because that would be ridiculous.

Jan 14

To read the entire series, click on the following articles:

    - This Changes Nothing

     - Adultery is Illegal in the Military? What Sort of 17th Century Puritanism is This?

     - Wait, the Military Isn't a Bastion of Morality?

     - Four More Thoughts on the Petraeus Scandal from Eric C...and an Apology

     - Michael C's Quick Hits on Petraeus

     - Stray Thoughts on the Poorly Named "Arab Winter"

     - Even More Stray Thoughts on the Poorly Named "Arab Winter"

In our attempt to follow the publishing tradition of end-of-the-year recaps, during the first week of every new year, we like to look back on the previous twelve months and ask, “What was the single most thought-provoking event?” We define this as the event that inspired the most post ideas, asked the most questions and, usually, provided the fewest answers. Because we don’t like to “chase the news”, it allows us to reflect on an event we probably didn’t write about.
Previous years provided easy targets. Looking back on our first seven months of blogging in 2009, the failed Iranian Green revolution provided few quick or easy answers. Looking back on 2010, we couldn’t hide our fascination/admiration/contempt for Wikileaks. Last year, four huge events stood out--the debunking of Greg Mortenson (which we declared our most thought provoking event of the first six months), the death of Osama bin Laden (which kind of inspired this entire series) and we didn’t even get time to discuss that military intervention in Libya that somehow went well. In the end, though, the Arab Spring fascinated us more than either of those three events to become our most thought-provoking event of 2011.

This month the On V offices have been abuzz with discussion over the most thought provoking event of 2012, and one thought stands out: there just isn’t much to choose from.

The election sucked up most of this year’s news coverage. The Iran situation continued to simmer like a pot on low, but it didn’t boil over. Just at the end, Israel and Palestine went at it again, but it seems like that happens every six years. Syria continued to slaughter civilians. Wars continue around the world that the media doesn’t cover at all. Gun violence, from Trayvon Martin to Aurora, CO to Newtown, CT, kept news channels busy, but that doesn’t involve foreign affairs.

We haven’t mentioned probably the two biggest words related to military/foreign affairs--two words we have barely used on the blog--Benghazi and Petraeus. The first was a terrorist attack on foreign soil, symbolic of the growing pains associated with building new democracies and the so-called “Arab Winter”. Linked to Benghazi as head of the CIA is General David Petraeus, whose entire career was apparently a fraud because he engaged in sexual relations with a woman who wasn’t his wife. (Sarcasm.)

In the end, we couldn’t decide whether the downfall of General Petraeus or the “Arab Winter” asked better questions: Does one affair discredit an entire wartime legacy? Is General Petraeus the latest Greg Mortenson or Stanley McChrystal? How does the severity of Benghazi relate to the terrorism of the last year? And if democracy really is so messy, should we just support dictators? And most importantly, do we have to write about a sex scandal?

For Petraeus, we have a number of longer posts. For Benghazi, we have a bunch of quick hits that we will roll out over a series of posts.

While the collapse of Petraeus’ career and the Arab Winter are separate events, we couldn’t choose between them. So for the next three weeks, we fire off our contemplative thoughts on the two most thought-provoking events of the last year.