Only a voyeur would experience any pleasure from contemplating General David Petraeus in flagrante delicto with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Which is why the Republican Party should be all over this scandal, given their predilection for stained blue skirts. Too bad Petraeus was one of their own – as recently as last year someone who was talked about as a Republican challenger to Barack Obama’s re-election. But that was last year; this year the Republicans are focused exclusively on tagging Obama with any possible hint of scandal, since they have failed at ejecting him from the Oval Office. Petraeus was just about to testify before Congress on what he knew about the Benghazi attack, offering to the Republicans a lingering hope that there might be some little thing of substance to the accusation that this was an administration cover-up, if not an outright murder of four US diplomats by the Obama administration. Now the Petraeus testimony will have to wait, because there is a potentially deeper scandal afoot, if not exactly the one Republicans are hoping to find.
As for the rest of us, we would just as soon draw the curtain on the non-marital concupiscence of General Petraeus for his loyal scribe. We prefer our heroes to be unsullied, their reputations unstained by personal, moral imperfections. Even the kings of France, on their nuptial nights when their wedding bed was surrounded by courtiers as witnesses, were allowed to have the bed curtains drawn. But there are other curtains to look behind here, and they don’t have to do with marital infidelity. Behind them lies a glimpse of the lifestyles of our most exalted military commanders, and further behind them lies even more extraordinary sights of military excess, of veritable orgies of wasteful spending, of over-hyped and under-performing counter-insurgency strategies, of cronyism run amok between the military and its corporate bedfellows, of a bought and paid for Congress, of an intimidated president and his administration, of a sycophantic media, and of a reverential and deferential American public. Then comes a third and final curtain, behind which we find bodies: hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis (almost all of them civilians), thousands more dead Afghanis, yet thousands more dead Pakistanis from impersonal drone aircraft, and then 4,000 dead Americans in Iraq, and 4,000 more dead Americans in Afghanistan, and tens of thousands of dreadfully injured and maimed young American men and women, living a life of perpetual pain and complete dependence on others for their survival. And hovering over all these dead and injured people is the question: What For? Certainly not to protect America against people like Osama bin Laden, who was what is known as a non-state actor, engaging in “asymmetrical warfare”, which means he spent $200,000 and 20 men launching an audacious, murderous attack on 3,000 Americans, who when all was said and done could not be protected by the Department of Defense, its $400,000,000,000 budget (at the time), its massive arsenal exceeding that of the entire world’s armies combined, and its personnel force of 2,000,000 people. So what is all this for?
It’s certainly not there for General Petraeus to have a sexual dalliance with Paula Broadwell, but then again, that in and of itself is their business and that of their spouses and children who now know about the affair. But it gets much harder for us to avert our eyes from the other characters in this drama, starting with Jill Kelley, who calls herself an ambassador, and seems to have some official or semi-official, but unpaid position, as a liaison between Lebanese and other Middle Eastern military officials, and the US military high command stationed in Tampa, Florida. Is this really how important military business is done in the United States? What sort of security clearance did this woman undergo before assuming this assignment? She and her husband have had ongoing financial problems, have had nine lawsuits filed against them, and there is an issue surrounding a charity they set up that they promptly closed, after it spent all of its income on travel and entertainment for Jill Kelley and her husband. None of this would be known if Jill Kelley herself did not decide to open up her life to a friend she had in the FBI, when she complained that Paula Broadwell was sending her intimidating and harassing emails. That led the FBI to poke around in Paula Broadwell’s emails, which led to the discovery of her affair with David Petraeus, which led to his resignation as head of the CIA, which has now all circled back to Jill Kelley again when the FBI discovered she has been in email correspondence, to the tune of 200 to 300 messages, with General John Allen, who is in charge of all US military operations in Afghanistan and has just been nominated for promotion as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. The FBI describes some of these emails as “inappropriate communications.”
These are two of the men, along with a few others in the high command, who are in charge of an annual $1,000,000,000,000 military budget for the US. This budget used to be only $400,000,000,000 back in 2000 and before 9/11, when the taxpayer spigot was opened wide to the defense establishment so that another 9/11 could never happen again. Let’s set aside the fact that 9/11 was considered “blowback” for American military incursions against Islamic countries in the 1980s and 1990s – the sort of activity America is doing once again, but on a much larger scale. We’ll set it aside because we don’t have any choice – we have to give the US military the benefit of the doubt, because we the American public know nothing about what goes on in the military. What we do know is what we are led to believe, not just by the sycophantic press and the subservient Congress, but by the millions of dollars spent annually by the military on public relations, including having people on staff to monitor all things said publicly by anyone about the military, and even to join in on discussion forums on the internet to speak up for the military, “correct misconceptions”, and make sure Americans continue to feel shamed if they don’t utter the words “thank you for your service” every time they meet a soldier, sailor, or marine.
When an organization as massive and with the global reach of the US military is allowed to operate for years – decades, even – without any effective oversight, in almost complete darkness, with no accountability, and surrounded by subservient and obsequious politicians and press – then the odds are extremely high that the organization has succumbed to corruption. Not just financial corruption, which quite likely exists on a scale that would be too difficult to comprehend – like the $1,000,000,000 in shrink-wrapped $100 notes that vanished in the sands of Iraq at the start of the 2003 invasion - but corruption of the soul. A corruption which allows men in high positions to see themselves as gods, unrestrained by normal moral considerations. A corruption which allows the organization to avert its eyes from strategic and tactical failures, because the commander involved has beguiled the media into treating him like the reincarnation of Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley. A corruption which allows the military to sneak the bodies of dead Americans into a Delaware air base in the dark of night so that the public will be “spared” the trauma of facing up to the human cost of its misadventures in the Middle East. A corruption which allows the military to cozy-up to right-wing “think tanks”, and evangelical ministers, and then hide the fact that rapes of women recruits are both frequent and frequently covered up. A corruption which allows the high command to sweep under the rug the revelations from the Boston Globe that retired generals and admirals are routinely given lucrative consulting jobs with the military, and then allowed to sit on military procurement commissions deciding on defense contracts with the very companies these men represent as paid lobbyists.
Perhaps the heaviest investment, and its most important, that the military has ever made, is in its public image. It is this image which gives the military its invulnerability from oversight or any public review of its actual workings. Such an image would hold up to unexpected public scrutiny if the business of the military was conducted with the honor, efficiency, true ability to defend the United States, and careful stewardship of taxpayer money that the military insists is the reality behind all the curtains that shroud its behavior. But the likelihood of this being the case is slim. Time and again, the United States has learned that from the 1980s and onwards, corruption has infested all major institutions – corporate boardrooms, the media, the world of sports, the Catholic priesthood, the halls of Congress, and the halls of academia. Why should the military, with vastly more dollars at stake, and with far greater means of hiding malfeasance and corruption, be exempt from these temptations?
This is the real meaning to the Petraeus scandal. It is not his misbehavior on a personal basis that matters – it is the hint it provides to misbehavior in so many other ways among his colleagues and quite possibly thousands of employees, defense contractors, lobbyists, elected representatives, and media. If this is indeed the case, then the image the military projects is nothing more than a façade, which can come crashing down overnight, especially if the public begins to ask the question: What is all this for?