It’s funny how related things seem to pop up together. Not long ago, I finished reading a book called “The Generals,” by Thomas Ricks. In a nutshell, Ricks concludes that our generals have steadily declined in ability since George Marshall left the chief of staff’s post. There is one modern general who clearly wasn’t mediocre, David Petraeus, and his recent departure from public life is one of the things that happened recently that got me to thinking about how stuff happens in bunches.
Another one is the release of Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Lincoln,” which I haven’t seen but which has pushed the Rail Splitter back into public attention. The movie is about the last months of Lincoln’s life when he contrived to get the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery passed. The timing of the movie, just as America re-elected its first black president was sort of appropriate.
All of which gets us to Barack Obama, the modern presidency and Petraeus.
I read a lot and have yet to see a negative reference to Petraeus as a commander. Books about the really ugly parts of the Iraq War invariably note that he and the 101st Air Mobile Division held down the violence in northern Iraq better than in any other part of the country. Then, when it looked like our efforts there were going down the tubes, Petraeus led the “surge” that stabilized things. A year or so later, he took a step down in position to take command in Afghanistan and stabilize things there after two predecessor generals had lost the job, one for not getting it done and one for shooting his mouth off. In short, whatever makes Petraeus tick, he was a winning general. Since he left Afghanistan and became director of the CIA things have bogged down there again.
That got me to thinking about Grant who was a winning general, too. He won mainly because he refused to be licked. He wasn’t all that brilliant but he knew his army’s strengths and was willing to use them, which many of his predecessors didn’t and hadn’t. Even so, Ol’ Ullys, had a little problem. He was, apparently a binge drinker. He’d be sober as a judge until the fight was won and then, when the stress was off, he was prone to go off on a bender.
The Union army was a hot bed of political intrigue as generals jockeyed for position and those generals had political supporters who would try and pressure Lincoln on their behalves. They got up a committee to press Lincoln to dismiss Grant because he was a drunkard, they said.
Lincoln heard the anti-Grant people out and then asked, “What sort of whiskey does he drink? I want to send a keg to each of my other generals.”
Now, Petreaus’ problem didn’t involve whiskey. It involved hanky-panky with Paula Broadwell who was writing his biography. When the story was about to break, Petreaus’s superior in the national security bureaucracy advised him to resign as director of the CIA and he did. When he did, President Obama missed a chance to be Lincolnesque.
If Obama wanted to be truly great like Lincoln, he should have refused Petraeus’s resignation and asked, “How many frequent flyer miles does Paula Broadwell have? I want to send her to see my other generals.”