The resignation of David Petraeus has the feel of both farce and tragedy. For some, he was a paragon, felled by something as trivial as a sexual impulse. For others, his affair, and the foolishness with which he carried it out, for example, using a Gmail drop-box to communicate with his paramour, showed the feet of clay behind the trumped up image of a disciplined and intelligent military leader. I want to focus this post, not on the question of his character, for example, was he too self-promoting, but rather on the meaning of his affair within the wider culture.
Some people have wondered if the popular response to this behavior, the shock and the disappointment, reflects a stubborn puritanism in the culture, even in an age when pornography is so widely available and adultery is common. I want to propose a different thesis. I think Petraeus represented the idealized image of what Nancy Sherman has called the “Stoic warrior.” The Stoic warrior is the military person who gains control over his feelings, particularly fear and anger, even in the face of the enormous stresses and losses associated with war and battle.
In a famous incident during World War Two, General Patton, a U.S. military hero, slapped and kicked a soldier who had been admitted to an army hospital for shell shock. Moved by the many bandaged and wounded soldiers he saw, Patton could not tolerate the idea that this solider could escape the line of fire by pleading nervousness. The incident was scandalous because witnesses saw Patton lose control in so egregious a manner. As Abraham Zaleznik writes, “At the height of this brief but violent encounter, Patton appeared to have been shaken by his own conduct. He began to sob, wheeled around and told Colonel Currier, ‘I can’t help it. It makes me break down to think of a yellow bastard being babied.’” The solider, it turned out, had just seen his buddy gravely wounded.
Encountering such a moment frightens people because it highlights how, when a leader loses control over this feelings, power can lead to abuse. History is of course filled with what Freud called “primal fathers” whose rage, paranoia and narcissism destroyed many lives. One thinks for example of Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin and Charles Taylor. And surely, most every child experiences moments when parents are frightening, and the gap between “big” and “small" feels so fateful and final. The stoic warrior is an ideal because it creates the hope that we can entrust leaders with the power they need to protect us, without them turning against us. Petraeus of course was not violent, but his foolishness suggests that he gave way to feelings of lust, so much so, that he became careless. Indeed, one signal measure of an army’s discipline is the degree to which its commanders ensure that the troops do not give way to lust for example, by raping vanquished women.
One question is how do we create stoic warriors, not only in the military but also in civilian life. After all, in every setting we face the risk that power will be abused. One is reminded here for example, of how the Tour de France bicycle champion, Lance Armstrong, abused his position as the seven-time winner to punish co-conspirators who revealed, or threatened to reveal the fact that he and his team members had used drugs to enhance their racing performance. He was enormously competitive, as all warriors must be, but he was also brutal. We have of course codes of ethics, stoicism was just a code, and we expect our leaders to be disciplined in their work, most importantly to bear the pain associated with long term achievement on our behalf. Petraeus had just this image of a man of great discipline, a capacity for work, and integrity.
But I want to suggest that our image of the Stoic warrior is linked as well to an idealized image of the parental couple. It is a common cultural trope that men learn to be responsible when they have children. They relinquish some degree of self-aggrandizement, and the freedom of adolescence, by learning to protect their children and make sacrifices on their behalf.
A Washington Post article conveys a revealing image of the Petraeus couple in this regard. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/gen-petraeuss-affair-tarnishes-seemingly-idyllic-marriage/2012/11/10/4425d986-2b68-11e2-96b6-8e6a7524553f_story.html). The reporter describes how Petraeus, and his wife Holly, “projected unity and love “as they presided “over their daughter’s wedding in Berryville, Va., at the stunning Rosemont Manor,” one month before the scandal. “Gen. Jack Keane, a longtime mentor who attended the nuptials noted that, ‘When dinner was over, Holly and Dave were both beaming throughout their evening.. They made their own way around the room saying hello to their friends and relatives.’ The reporter goes on to note that, “To many army couples Petraeus and his wife represented a role-model marriage.” Holly, herself the daughter of a four star general, had endured long separations from her husband when he was oversees and spent much of her work-life lobbying on behalf of veterans. “As the assistant director for the Obama administration's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, she monitors and investigates consumer complaints from U.S. service members.” It is also a common cultural trope that the family is a civilizing institution.
One hypothesis is that the presidential election was partly about whether and how we can and/or should sustain this idealized image of the parental couple. As David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the New York Times wrote, after the election, “At some point over the past generation, people around the world entered what you might call the age of possibility. They became intolerant of any arrangement that might close off their personal options. The transformation has been liberating, and it’s leading to some pretty astounding changes. For example, for centuries, most human societies forcefully guided people into two-parent families. Today that sort of family is increasingly seen as just one option among many. The number of Americans who are living alone has shot up from 9 percent in 1950 to 28 percent today. In 1990, 65 percent of Americans said that children are very important to a successful marriage. Now, only 41 percent of Americans say they believe that. There are now more American houses with dogs than with children.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/16/opinion/brooks-the-age-of-possibility.html)
Perhaps part of Obama’s appeal, and why the Republicans failed in their effort to characterize him as a radical, is that he appears so temperate and controlled, even if sometimes dull and disengaged. Most people would find it inconceivable that he would engage in extra-marital sex, as did his more exciting predecessor, Bill Clinton. It is also likely that Brooks wrote his column in response to the discourse about the coalition that elected Obama. It did not include, “white males,” one cultural repository, at least for some people, for the image of the good patriarch.
This may be one reason that the Petraeus scandal, occurring so close to the election, had special resonance. It occurred on the heels of a cultural struggle, in which the stakes are high and there is no clear path forward. If Petraeus was as talented as some claim, then we faced the farce of losing a great leader to a sexual peccadillo. But if he also represented the hope associated with the ideal parental couple, our loss, while largely symbolic, hurts us more.