I saw this video a couple of days ago and it’s starting to pick up steam. As I’ve written about in the past, I’m of the belief that the much vaunted “civilian-military divide” is a thing only as much as military people think it’s a thing. Civilians don’t sit around thinking about how disconnected from the military they are. We do that.
But, videos like this contribute to military people sitting there, incredulously, mouth agape, swearing that they don’t understand the society from which they came.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that more than any other military personality, Gen. Petraeus has received a disproportionate amount of hate.
It began with the “General Betray Us” ad in 2007 when he was testifying before Congress about the need to “surge” in Iraq.
When I was still a CUNY student at the City College of New York, I attended a talk given by Gen. Petraeus at the 92nd Street Y – not exactly an imperialist think-tank. I arrived early, and there were a handful of protestors outside, waving signs that called Gen. Petraeus a war criminal. The protestors heckled anyone who stepped inside, asking why we’d want to hear a man like that say anything.
General/Ambassador Eikenberry was up on stage, introducing Gen. Petraeus, who was walking up to the podium. As he read through the laundry list of the General’s accomplishments, he was using a mnemonic of “He was the Commander of forces in Iraq, then he was the Commander of….he was…” Right as he said another “He was” a protestor who had “infiltrated” (bought a ticket) jumped up and screamed “A WAR CRIMINAL! HE’S A WAR CRIMINAL! YOU’RE A WAR CRIMINAL!”
The room gasped and some people tried to shush or shame the protestor. Gen. Eikenberry waited for the person to be removed, which took an awkwardly long time. Gen. Petraeus held his hand to his eyes, shielding them from the light to try to see who it was.
The protestor was removed and the Gen. made an off the cuff remark about the protestor that made everyone laugh. I don’t remember what it was, but it wasn’t offensive. It was making fun of himself if I remember correctly.
A couple of years later, I was in London for graduate school. In a small classroom, I sat with a handful of very bright students waiting for our professor of Middle East anthropology. We had just read an article critical about the Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some quotes from General Petraeus were in it. I listened in on a conversation happening next to me between two students, one from the UK and one from Italy:
Italian Student: “You know, I have to admit, I kind of had to respect General Petraeus when I read that he has a PhD from Princeton.”
UK Student: “Oh please, the Nazis were highly educated too.”
My jaw literally dropped a bit and I had to bite my cheek not to flip my desk. Both statements were ridiculous. I didn’t say anything. It is terribly awkward to be the grizzled Army veteran in a Middle East studies class. And once that cat is out of the bag, it doesn’t go back in.
The Italian student’s statement was ridiculous because buried inside of it is the idea that having any kind of respect for General Petraeus because of his military service or character is unfathomable. But because he got a PhD from Princeton, now it’s okay. That kind of a statement just fuels the idea that there is this academic elite who can only respect and understand people who have their noses buried in a book.
The UK student’s statement offended for obvious reasons.
And now, of course, we have the video above, which I’m particularly embarrassed about as a CUNY graduate. I’m all for protest and free speech. And CUNY is a special university that has a rich history of being at the very least – skeptical – of the military. But I think that this trend of hate towards P4 is indicative of just how skewed the public is about the military.
Inside of the military, General Petraeus was a legend living in his own time. For most of us, he really only appeared on our radar after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom when he led the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq and settled in Mosul. From there, he was relentless and lead MNSTC-I, which was charged with training Iraqi forces, then commanded the Combined Arms Center where he worked at writing (with others) the Counterinsurgency Manual. Then commanding forces in Iraq for the surge, CENTCOM Commander, then the odd promotion/demotion to commanding forces in Afghanistan after Gen. McChrystal was fired. Retirement, then Director of the CIA before his personal scandal had him retiring from that.
A storied career. Weaved inside of all that is a ton of media which got him on the front page of a bunch of magazines and on television dozens and dozens of times. He became “the” General that everyone knew.
Soldiers, however, know the rest of the story from people who served with him. How he was an avid runner and athlete, and didn’t believe in weight training – just good old fashioned Army physical training. How when he commanded a Brigade in the 82nd Airborne Division, he had a physical fitness challenge for the paratroopers that no one could beat him in. How he was accidentally shot on a training range. And of course, his relentless, un-ending energy.
There was nothing bad to say about the guy. He was loved. One of the good guys.
But anti-war activists seized on General Petraeus as the target of their discontent. He became the poster boy for anti-war. For military people watching, it didn’t make any sense. Why Petraeus?
My theory is because it’s the only General they know. The media windstorm surrounding him (and which he helped stir) means that he is the General, and with it comes the good and the bad.
For the military and veteran communities, though, all we see is a bunch of self-righteous kids egging one of one our heroes. Without a good understanding of how this all happened, it is very easy to slip into a general hate for the protestors specifically and the society generally that promotes it. That’s not good.
Like I said, “closing the gap” on the civilian-military divide is only a real thing inasmuch as military people are willing to do so. But, admittedly, this crap doesn’t help.