The undoing of David Petraeus

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.

 

Those lines from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” came to mind when the news broke of General David Petraeus’ resignation as CIA Director. Antony spoke the words as Caesar’s corpse lay before him, slain violently for his ambition.

According to many who served alongside Petraeus during his military career he, too, was a man of ambition. But aside from accusations of excessive ego, few could find fault with him or what he brought to the defense of our country. Until Friday, November 9, 2012.

In the past-tense commentary following the revelation of Petraeus’ adultery, we proved again how quick we are to dismiss the best among us if we sniff a failure of character. We forget that our heroes are also human, subject to flattery, weakness, and temptation. Yes, we expect more of them, especially a man whose profession rests on honor and integrity. But who among us has not done something he regrets? Would we want to be remembered for that alone after we are gone?

When Petraeus passes on, his obituary will mention his “resignation from the CIA due to an extramarital affair” — even if he dies while saving an orphanage full of children from certain death by fire. We devalue humanity itself when we define a person by the worst thing he has ever done.

History, however, simply cannot ignore the man’s brilliance, confidence, and dedication to completing the mission, even in the face of jeers and accusations of mendacity.

Remember Petraeus’ September 2007 Report to Congress on the Situation in Iraq, when MoveOn.org <http://MoveOn.org> ran a full-page ad in the New York Times calling him “General Betray Us”? Or Senator Hillary Clinton’s comment during his testimony that “the reports that you provide to us really require a willing suspension of disbelief”?

He never reacted publicly to these insults but like any mortal, he was struggling. Earlier in 2007 when Petraeus took command of multinational forces in Iraq to implement the surge, most newspapers in the country were blasting both him and President Bush. I wrote a column for the Savannah Morning News wishing him Godspeed. Petraeus emailed me to express his gratitude.

Presuming upon that slender thread of connection, I emailed him on the day of the “General Betray Us” ad to ask for his reaction to it. As I expected he said “no comment,” then added something he asked me not to quote. So I’ll just say that I have it on good authority that a friend from his hometown had sent him a copy of Kipling’s poem “If.”

I suspect the following couplets comforted him that day:

 

If you can keep your head when all about you

are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too …

 

True, his current situation differs dramatically from that day in September of 2007. Now he has no one but himself to blame for his and his family’s suffering. Perhaps he feels that in sullying his reputation at this stage of his career, his life is over. But he is 60 years old, a decade short of the promised threescore and ten. Our best work is often born of a chastened humility.

There is another passage in Kipling’s poem that might prove relevant to a man contemplating the ruins of his life:

 

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings,

And never breathe a word about your loss:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

 

 

Godspeed, David Petraeus.

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