Tuesday, April 21, 2009


On the morning of the evening when General David H. Petraeus will address a gathering of notables and military officer candidates (his son included) at Harvard’s Kennedy School Forum, the ‘Boston Globe’ runs a couple of interesting pieces on its ‘Opinion’ (Op-Ed) Page.

He’s not the first General to come a’visiting. A long couple of years ago a predecessor in the position, General Abizaid, showed up – in plain field uniform , the camouflage uniform with the trout-like stippling and the pizza-flop beret. Whether he was trying to mock those who brunch at the Kennedy School (I’m a soldier in the field and you’re not, hah hah) or impress upon them that he was a successful field commander and not just a desk general (though he wasn’t really successful and he was driven around in a Mercedes) is anybody’s guess.

Or maybe he was going for the Ulysses S. Grant effect: in command of armies totaling more than Abizaid’s field force, Grant was photographed, leaning up against a tent pole, a plain blue uniform with just the three (three!) star shoulder straps of his rank (he was the first general officer to hold that rank since Washington himself). If so, the effect was lessened by Abizaid’s being photographed against the bosky background of Hahvahd (and with the pizza-flop hat) rather than in the field like Grant, who at the time was waging a hard but successful field campaign. Oh what tangled webs we weave, when first we practice to strike the right pose.

Anyhoo, back to the Op-Ed Page. The top quarter of the page is a text-only piece by H.D.S. Greenway entitled, acutely enough, “Dying for the throne, far from home”. Greenway astutely connects numerous dots. The previous day was Patriot’s Day in Boston – recalling the day in April 1775 when the Redcoats were ordered to march to Lexington and Concord and preemptively confiscate the powder and ammunition the local militia units had stored there. Three British soldiers died trying to hold the North Bridge in Concord, to prevent colonial reinforcements from heading east to help the militia in Lexington. Two of them are buried in a small tomb on the ‘British’ end of the bridge.

It reminds Greenway of other British graves, especially in Afghanistan, of soldiers sent to wage some sort of war for some vague reason of state by a government whose members could not find the place on an office globe without help.

It also reminds him that precisely 200 years later, on Patriot’s Day, 1975, the last two US troops died in Vietnam as the choppers were making the last lift-offs from the last few square yards of American sovereignty. They were brought home for burial, as befits a hegemon that need not leave its dead in unknown holes in unknown places. One of those last two is buried not far away, in another colonial town, Woburn. Upon him, and all of them, be much peace.

No great earth-shaking insight. Just a connecting of some dots most folks wouldn’t have sufficient time or memory to notice. But it is powerful – because it speaks to something in Us far deeper than words, concepts, or the solemn (but not serious) gobbledygook of imperial reasons-of-state.

But the whole piece is intensified in effect when the eye catches what is beneath it. The central half of the Page, half above and half beneath the fold, is pinned to a large photo of General Petraeus, not affecting the ‘simple warrior’ pose of Abizaid, but rather, three-quarters frontal, in full service-green uniform: shirt, tie, and a jacket topped by the four-stars on each shoulder, and almost littered down the rest of its length (in the photo) with ribbons, medallions, and assorted insignia, all proclaiming Been there, done that, as they say in the military.

Alas for His Generality, in seeking to send a different message from Abizaid, he also sends a different message from Grant. Grant the simple fighting general, no ribbons, no medals, no nothing – just the shoulder straps, and between them a head turned like a warship’s gun turret, straight at you, the two eyes – even in grainy black and white almost a century and a half old – boring into you, as if he had a hell of a lot more important things to do than get his picture took for the Eastern papers.

Petraeus, when you unfold the paper to its full length, is revealed holding an impressive-looking file with four stars imprinted on the cover under his left arm, his right arm outstretched – Caesar statue style – holding (wait for it) a pen. Or maybe a PowerPoint pointer. Or a dry-erase board marker, come to think of it. But of course.

The show only gets better.

The piece accompanying the photo is entitled ‘Leadership, Petraeus style’. It is by one Paula D. Broadwell. Ms. Broadwell is, the blurb at the end of the article reveals, by amazing coincidence a Major in the US Army, currently “a pre-doctoral research associate at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership”. Ah that is indeed a mouthful . One can only imagine that she will cause less danger to the troops there than elsewhere. Although whether ‘leadership’ is anything she can handle – or a school saddled both with ‘Harvard’ and ‘Kennedy’ can teach – is anybody’s guess. There’s an element of ‘character’ to the thing, y’see, and ‘character’ smacks of elitism, meritocracy, patriarchy, and general hierarchical oppression. So it’s kind of hard for Harvard to teach it – on soooo many levels.

Nonetheless, the Major buckles down in best military fashion to the task of ‘improving her position’.

She reveals that she has spent “100 hours” interviewing “Petraeus, his mentors, peers and subordinates”. Which makes you wonder whether she had nothing else to do, found herself with a lot of spare time on her hands, or was sent to Harvard specifically for the purpose of writing the Op-Ed, by merest coincidence, the morning of the evening of Petraeus’s speechifying.

Interviewing his subordinates … this is akin to an NKVD agent asking a Party member – for attribution in Pravda – what the member thought of Comrade Stalin, aka The Granite Bolshevik, The Brass-hard Leninist, and generally The Peerless Savior and Protector of the Soviet Masses. And also, He-who-sends-to-the-Gulag-with-a-mere-nod-of-his-leonine-head.

But perhaps Petraeus has already been selected by Harvard and/or the Pentagon as the “preeminent soldier, scholar, and statesman of his generation”, as the Major quotes Secretary of Defense Gates. If so, then Broadwell is perhaps going to do her thesis – assuming they still write the things – on Petraeus; if so, it’s a sure bet Harvard will accept it and Petraeus will ‘remember it’ when promotion and assignment time comes around. What’s not to like?

Petraeus, Broadwell ‘reports’, will “underline the importance of adaptive leaders in today’s complex national security environment”. But of course. In other words, Broadwell is telegraphing the spin the General would like put on his speech, while he himself will be defining the urgent national need for someone with … precisely his qualities. You can’t beat that for military efficiency. How, one wonders, are we losing at all? With PR and speeches like this, shouldn’t the imperial forces be winning on all fronts? But the Germans asked themselves the same question even while listening to Goebbels’s finely honed speeches after the summer of 1942. Ach.

And, no slouch she, the Major actually draws the conclusion, for those not so quick on the uptake: “A common theme is that Petraeus models the very principles of adaptive leadership that he advocates.” But of course. And if there’s some doubt as to just what advantages ‘women’ bring to the military, it is crystal clear that one expectation of which We must disabuse Ourselves is that they will reduce the K-Quotient. *

And yet what does all the nice word-age mean? The ‘complex national security environment’ is composed of a bankrupt treasury, an industrial base all but pissed away, an acquisition process that can’t even order a steak knife without putting bells-and-whistles on it, to say nothing of a definition of the ‘national interest’ that now extends around the globe, an American public that has to be made to understand that World War Two was quaint and now the kids will be dying for less obvious – though truly great – reasons, and a soldiery that needs to understand that sometimes doing good means doing what seems to be bad (but, if the Fundamentalist chaplainry be trusted, is truly God’s world-whacking will).

Oh, and the two wars – currently ‘works in progress toward an eventual successful outcome’. Ja!
Oh, and the indenture of the Beltway to the Israeli state, which is tugging on the leash to make its very large but failing pit-bull take on the Iranians before it runs out of steam altogether.

What is going to be required in this ‘complex national security environment’ here is somebody who cannot be pinned down on any front – not the military front, not the PR front, not the political and Beltway front. A ‘character’ that flexible will have to be something just short of invertebrate. And perhaps that’s just what Harvard is ‘teaching’ these days.

It would be tedious to analyze the ensuing paragraphs chock full of the vague, abstract, distantly upbeat and can-do buzz-wordage that are more akin to any of a hundred dozen ‘corporate leadership’ how-to books. OK, one example: “Adaptive leadership is a set of strategies and practices that can help organizations and the people in them break through gridlocks, accomplish change, and develop the adaptability to thrive in complex, competitive, and challenging environments.” This text, I submit, not only possesses a stratospheric K-Quotient, but is not the Major at all, unless – as a good bobby-soxer – she is channeling Petraeus while looking at his photo over her word-processor in her room at night (in which case, Judy Garland did a lot better job for Clark Gable).

In fact, it makes me wonder if – in a sublime example of military misdirection – Petraeus has arranged the whole thing, the Major included, for the actual purpose of auditioning for the job of tenured Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. (And with Feith a tenured Professor at Georgetown … who can justify saying No to him?)

In support whereof, he does mention, as his field-grade stenographer notes, that his approach “differs from many leadership perspectives in its core premise that one can learn good leadership”. Yah. Don’t bet on it. And certainly not at Hahvahd or anywhere having anything to do with the last of the Kennedys.

Do these people think We are all complete imbeciles?

Here is a man who never went to Harvard and learned his leadership by failing, and coming back, and having a go at it again: “Sir: Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of Commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works. I am, sir, very respectfully, Your ob’d’t se’v’t, U.S.GRANT, Brig. Gen."

Now that’s a soldier speaking, and a general.

I’m not saying that We must demand “immediate and unconditional surrender” to all of Our desires in all of Our foreign undertakings, but I am saying that if We are getting Our military involved in undertakings where such a possibility is inconceivable, then We shouldn’t be sending Our military into such situations to begin with.

And I will tell you this: if We persist in the type of murky, mushy, ‘military’ adventures that seem to be all the rage nowadays, then We are not going to get any Grants – We are going to wind up with Petraeus and all his spawn. The Major, she no doubt imagines, included.


*Take the letters ‘r’, ‘a’, and ‘p’ in that order. Put them together. Place the letter ‘K’ in front of them. Say the resulting letter-combination out loud.

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