If you studied International Relations in the mid to late noughties, or had any interest in contemporary warfare during that same period, I would challenge you not to have heard of General David Petraeus. I name-checked the man and his counterinsurgency doctrine in more than onr essay. Petraeus is widely thought, if not as the instigators of counterinsurgency, at least as one of its foremost proponents. The “let’s build nations rather than bomb the shit out of them” approach might seem a bit of a “duh, common sense” idea, but until Petraeus’ Iraq and Afghanistan leadership, this phase, on a large scale, was mostly synonymous with post, rather than during-war behaviour. It was something (and I overly simplify here) occupying forces would consider as a way to settle down. Think post WW2 Germany.
The first time I heard about Petraeus was in 2007, when he became commander of the Iraq Multi-National Force. What struck me was neither his leadership, nor his strategy but rather his name, which seemed straight out of Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars. Having spent many teenage hours translating Roman war strategy texts, I could just picture Petraeus consorting with Hannibal over the best way to trap the Romans at Lake Trasimene. The name was the hook but as I researched the leader, I found his mastership of modern media fascinating. He wasn’t just running counterinsurgency abroad, he was running a parallel campaign at home, becoming a pin-up general and gathering popular and political support.
As you can imagine, for the past week, I have been glued to my computer, questioning in the process this slightly unhealthy interest. In sex scandals, I am generally the first in a conversation to ask “who cares” (as long as it was agreed between all parties, I’m looking at you DSK) but in this instance, I care very much. Part of me is disappointed by the sheer banality of it. How can Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, by all accounts two smart individuals with such careers and promises, fall on the stupidest of swords? An affair, when you’ve worked in counter-terrorism and ran a couple of wars, isn’t it a bit… mundane? Shouldn’t history have taught them better? Part of me likes the almost Greek aspect of the story, this crime of hubris of thinking your intellect and intelligence experience will allow you to outsmart everybody.
Scandal after scandal, we are reminded that as human beings, we want irreproachable leaders we equally admire and envy for their rise and success, their drive and ambition. This envy is at the heart of their downfalls since we like to think they are, in fact, no better than us. It makes becoming them seem more possible. For that very reason, I doubt we’ve seen the last of Petraeus. He’s shown he was a leader, and he’s shown he was human. Unless malpractices are discovered in the process, if he plays it right he could come out of the scandal stronger.
If nothing else, we’ll likely see him impersonated on the big screen in the next few years. The scenario is just writing itself. As a reminder: General Petraeus stepped down from the CIA after his affair with biographer Broadwell was discovered following emails she wrote to army social liaison Jill Kelley warning her off her lover. Kelley asked the FBI to look into the threatening correspondence, which resulted in an FBI agent sending her shirtless pictures of himself and in the Bureau stumbling upon pages of “flirty” emails she’d been exchanging with General John R. Allen, who replaced Petraeus in Afghanistan. You just can’t make this kind of intertwined plot up.
I’m calling for Daniel Craig and Angelina Jolie in the title roles, not because they look like Petraeus or Broadwell but because a movie with the two of them has been overdue since Tomb Raider. As for the scenario, I’d give it, another personal indulgence, to Aaron Sorkin, who can write leadership and sexual tension like no one else when he really pours his heart and brain into it. Not to mention his penmanship would play quite well with the sexist and double standard undertones the affair narrative has been riddled with.