In 1970, a diminutive 18-year-old from rural Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., traveled 9 miles south from his parents’ home and checked in at the front gate at what would be his new residence for the next four years. He had worked hard in high school to get the grades to qualify for this unique place, and in return he had pledged an additional five years of service to the organization.
The young man was David Petraeus, and by walking through the front gate at the U.S. Military Institute at West Point, he committed to spending the next nine years of his life connected to the Army. By the end of his military career, he had served 37 years and reached the rank of four-star general.
This country invested heavily in developing Petraeus into the successful and well-decorated military leader he became. We spent about $1 million on his extensive education: West Point, Ranger School, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and in the mid-1980s Princeton University, where he earned both a master’s and his Ph.D. in international relations. And during that time, according to military and West Point sources, Petraeus would have been receiving take-home military pay of $50,000 to $60,000 a year. Low-cost commissary goods and housing (or a housing allowance) were also part of the deal.
Multiply this government support over 37 years, and it is likely America has invested multiple millions of taxpayer dollars for the education, transportation and development of Petraeus.
To be sure, this country got a considerable return on its considerable investment. Among his long list of accomplishments, Petraeus commanded a division that helped liberate Iraq and steered the course for America’s exit from the war in Afghanistan.
As we all know, last September, Petraeus resigned from the military to become director of the CIA. Then he had a brief extramarital affair that forced him to resign as the nation’s top spy.
The CIA director simply cannot compromise national security by allowing outsiders to get close to classified information — say, on his iPhone, laptop computer or briefcase. Even though Petraeus, now 60, was no longer operating under the military law that deems adultery a crime, he had to go. He fell back on the West Point Code of Honor, which states that no cadet will lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate anyone who does. Petraeus resigned from the CIA, and it was the right thing to do.
Where I have a problem, however, is the pious and sometimes vicious condemnation of the man. Words such as fraud, scum, hypocrite and even traitor have been used repeatedly to describe Petraeus.
Yes, he made a terrible mistake, but let’s be honest. He succumbed to the most common and mundane of human weaknesses — a sexual affair with a 30-something woman.
When President Bill Clinton shamed the office by having sexual relations with a young woman not much older than his daughter — and didn’t have the decency to resign after being impeached for lying about it under oath — I was, personally, disgusted. Not so much with Petraeus.
A double standard? No, not really. There is no comparing a career politician to a career military patriot. Both pledged loyalty to America, of course, but in this equation only one has selflessly dedicated his whole life in service to the country.
Retired Maj. Mike Lyons told me that Petraeus and his wife, Holly, moved 22 times in 30 years to keep up with his burdensome reassignments. As a fellow West Point graduate, Lyons is friendly with many inside Petraeus’ inner circle. He estimates that during the last six or seven years, Petraeus spent about five years deployed abroad. The entire Petraeus family, according to Lyons, has endured “tremendous instability” on behalf of the country.
Clinton, who deliberately never served a day in the military, seems to me to have been motivated more by his own personal goals and partisan politics. And unlike the head of the CIA, Clinton occupied the highest and most powerful position in the country — some would argue, in the world.
So, for those so quick to condemn a man like Petraeus who briefly strayed outside his marriage, I have to ask: Shouldn’t we consider his whole life? Petraeus’ dedication to country for nearly four decades surely must count for something, right?
When I expressed this feeling to a pal of mine — a former Marine — he sent me an eye-opening email. “Our warriors all understand they are held to a higher standard, and they accept that as a consequence of their service. We don’t want people who compromise integrity or make excuses because we also have to rely on these extraordinary warriors to act with uncompromising valor on the battlefield.”
He concluded by saying, “Only those who have served understand this, I guess.”
Well, I have never served in the military, but several members of my family have. And I remember that awful time after Vietnam when America turned its back on brave warriors and called them names, too. Remember “baby-killers”?
If we respond to momentary lapses of judgment among our career military personnel with invectives like “psychotic” and “egomaniac” (as I heard Petraeus described recently), then where will we find the next generation of 18-year-olds knocking on West Point’s front gate?
Let’s stop kicking the dog while he’s down, shall we?