“You’re a very bad man. ” So yelled Dorothy at the Wizard of Oz, once the imposing, larger-than-life face on the screen was revealed to be a mere projection of a tiny old man behind a curtain fidgeting with levers and knobs.
“No, my dear.” The embarrassed all-too-human wizard answered back, “I’m a very good man. I'm just a very bad wizard.”
Given the lurid allegations about Gen. David Petraeus with Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley—many of them still unproven but perhaps with still more to surface from an FBI investigation—is the wizard Petraeus now revealed as a “very bad man”? Or is he just a “very bad general”—or both, or neither?
All we know for now is that Petraeus has confessed to a single extramarital relationship with his biographer Paula Broadwell. And he insists that the affair developed after he left the Army, during his directorship of the CIA. Under convoluted circumstances, the tryst became known to the FBI and, shortly after, to the Obama administration, leading to Petraeus’s resignation 72 hours after the 2012 presidential election. But what has all this got to do with any assessment of Petraeus as a military commander in the field?
Most Americans remain ambivalent about the personal lives of their politicians—how could they not be given the legacy of Bill Clinton? But even in the past, they seemed to have put up with infidelity and did not consider the affairs of a Warren Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, or John F. Kennedy as referenda on their political effectiveness. But there were important qualifications: The lapses should not involve illegality and be kept largely out of the newspapers—which stand in stark contrast to the public scandals that ruined the reputations of John Edwards, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eliot Spitzer, and others. It helps also to be effective politicians. They weather personal scandals far better than do mediocrities, whose fall from public life is rarely missed. Schwarzenegger’s sexual failings were well known—and dismissed—when he ran for California governor in a wave of popular goodwill, but came back to haunt him only when as a two-term ineffective governor, his tryst with his housekeeper became the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back of voter forgiveness.
Judging Generals as Generals
Are generals, however, to be judged under different rules? Unlike most politicians, they operate under more stringent codes of personal conduct and are often in harm’s way with responsibilities for the lives of thousands under their commands.
History offers some rough guidelines to the real men who wore masks of command. In a word, many of the best were as pursuant of women as they were of the enemy—and the former did not seem to impair the latter. Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, and Plutarch have as much to say about Alexander the Great’s alcohol-driven sexual liaisons as they do about his brilliance on the battlefield. The court biographer Suetonius related that Julius Caesar—the finest general that Rome produced—was alleged by a critic to be, “Every woman’s man, and every man’s woman.” Cleopatra seduced both Caesar and Marc Antony when they deployed to Egypt.
In postclassical—and supposedly more staid times—the married Napoleon was a confirmed womanizer, often in the midst of his campaigning to unify Europe under French leadership. The equally married 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, Napoleon’s conqueror at Waterloo, apparently made it a point to sleep with two of Napoleon’s mistresses, the Parisian Marguerite Weimer and the acclaimed beautiful Italian singer Josephina Grassini. Weimer was supposedly asked to rate the two great generals on their comparable sexual prowess and came down firmly on the side of the Duke: “Monsieur Le Duc etait de beaucoup le plus fort.” Wellington’s contemporary, Lord Horatio Nelson conducted an open affair with the married model, actress, and sometimes singer, Emma Hamilton.
If such dalliances hampered their generalship, it is hard to see how and where. The personal lives of an array British imperial military heroes—William Howe, Herbert Kitchener, and Orde Wingate—were surrounded in salacious controversy, and the rumors had no effect whatsoever on their military careers.
America’s best commanders were often subject to allegations of womanizing. Some controversial biographers have alleged that William Tecumseh Sherman, the man who gave Lincoln the 1864 election by taking Atlanta, engaged in a number of affairs during his postwar military career. Fleet admiral Ernest King, who more or less singlehandedly directed U.S. naval strategy in World War II, was an inveterate skirt chaser. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was mired in a publicized feud with gossipmonger Drew Pearson over his exposed affair with the Eurasian Rosario “Dimples” Cooper, whom MacArthur had brought to Washington from the Philippines when he was appointed Army Chief of Staff. When MacArthur began his relationship with the 16-year-old Cooper, she was over 30 years younger than the general.
More controversial was the near inexplicable behavior of the usually sober and judicious Dwight Eisenhower, who oversaw all allied ground operations in Europe after June 1944. Ike spent much of his time at the front accompanied by his chauffeur, the thirty-six-year-old British subject Kay Summersby, who, in old age, would go on to claim in her ghost-written memoir (Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower) that the two had been in love and that the general had been unable to consummate their affair.
George S. Patton proved the best armored commander in American history. He was also profane and boisterous—and saved thousands of American lives by his brilliant leadership of the 3rd Army during the nine months between August 1944 and April 1945. Patton was probably having an ongoing affair with his wife’s half-niece Jean Gordon, perhaps beginning years before the war when Jean, who would later commit suicide after Patton’s death, was in her early twenties. At any rate, a close colleague once wrote in his diary that Patton, in the midst of the pursuit of the German army, bragged to him of Gordon, “She’s been mine for twelve years.” The list of philandering American generals, some of them brilliant, many more mediocre, is near endless. But it still begs the question—so what?
The answer is not so clear cut, given that it involves morality, legality, responsibility—and, most importantly—military performance. In response to rumors swirling from the front, should Gen. George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, have warned Eisenhower either to send Kay Summersby home or to have come home himself—thus depriving the allies of about the only senior general who was capable of waging coalition war alongside the British and in dealing with the enormous egos of Gens. Bernard Montgomery, Omar Bradley, and George S. Patton?
By removing Patton from major military responsibility for slapping two soldiers in Sicily, Eisenhower already had robbed the American army of critical leadership on the eve of the Italian invasion, a theater that would be plagued by inept decision-making that cost tens of thousands of American lives. Should Ike have also sent Patton home as he later barreled toward the Siegfried Line, on rumors that he was once more seeing Jean Gordon?
On the other hand, did Kay Summersby offer the lonely and often stressed Ike much needed companionship that energized his command, or did such flirtation waste valuable hours that prevented Eisenhower from being fully engaged when the allies under his command committed strategic and tactical blunders by not closing the Falaise Pocket, carrying through with the ill-conceived Market-Garden operation, or being utterly surprised and unprepared at the Battle of the Bulge? No historian has ever made such allegations.
The Case of David Petraeus
In the case of David Petraeus, his leadership in Iraq between early 2007 and late 2008 was critical to the success of the surge that may well have salvaged the entire American effort in Iraq—an achievement that is unaltered by Petraeus’s later personal failings. True, his 2010-11 tenure in Afghanistan was marked by an inability to apply the successful Iraqi counter-insurgency protocols to a far more difficult theater of operations. The degree to which Paula Broadwell’s more frequent presence in Afghanistan distracted Petraeus is unknown, but it is unlikely that Petraeus’s personal life accounts for his failure to pull off yet another improbable victory—given the innate greater difficulty of waging counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan than in Iraq.
Is the moral character of top commanders to be judged by absolute fidelity without the knowledge of the exact circumstances of one’s marriage? In other words, does the rumored presence of a Kay Summersby, Jean Gordon, or Paula Broadwell always undermine the moral force of a general’s leadership? In the present U.S. military that is gender-blind, and to the extent that such dalliances become well known to troops under a general’s command, the answer is probably yes.
Yet to the degree affairs remain private, the question then hinges on whether they detract from a commander’s ability to lead—by simply wasting precious time, causing mental turmoil and guilt, or inducing paranoia over exposure. Here we do not know the answer, and can hardly attribute a general’s setbacks to romantic distractions. In the case of David Petraeus, his tenure at CENTCOM, as senior ground commander in Afghanistan, and as Director of the CIA, was not marked with the same energy and competence as displayed earlier in Iraq. But either health issues—an older Petraeus battled prostate cancer in his post-Iraq billets—or the nature of the different commands, may explain the difference far better than hours spent jogging alongside Broadwell.
Finally, military codes of conduct also explain a lot. Nothing Wellington or Nelson did was illegal. For that matter, a more prudish America did not demand that its generals be relieved of command for extra-marital relations during World War II. After all, the Commander in Chief Franklin Roosevelt himself was not innocent. However, with the rise of the modern fully integrated military, a whole array of new standards of conduct arose to deal with the presence of tens of thousands of female soldiers at the front. Petraeus’s problem, then, could also have become legal, if information had arisen that, despite his denials, the general had become involved with Broadwell on active duty—while responsible for sending home any subordinate married officers caught in similar romantic relationships.
For now, what are the moral parameters for American military leadership? They are certainly different from the past when military brilliance, the rigors of lonely command at the front, and an ability to keep private lives from public attention provided generals and admirals de facto exemption. We live in both a more risqué and repressed age—as popular culture celebrates raw sexuality even as we become ever more moralistic about sex.
In the complex new culture, the rules are nevertheless clear for America’s generals and admirals, and they hinge entirely on absolute adherence to the military code of conduct: engage in an extramarital affair and get caught, and your military career will be all but ended—regardless of whether you are another Ike or Patton.
Victor Davis Hanson, the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a classicist and an expert on the history of war. He is a syndicated Tribune Media Services columnist and a regular contributor to National Review Online, as well as many other national and international publications; he has written or edited twenty-three books, including the New York Times best seller Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. His most recent book is The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost - from Ancient Greece to Iraq (Bloomsbury 2013). He was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Bush in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008 and has been a visiting professor at the US Naval Academy, Stanford University, Hillsdale College, and Pepperdine University. Hanson received a PhD in classics from Stanford University in 1980.