What does the Petraeus scandal say about us?

By Tim Nicastro

David Petraeus

“It’s widely accepted that no force worked harder to win Iraqi hearts and minds than the 101st Air Assault Division led by Petraeus.” This was after Petraeus famously asked a reporter to predict how the Iraq war would end, while acknowledging how easy it is to start a war and how difficult it is to finish. I’m biased; there’s no doubt about that. I’m openly anti-war and believe America to be a nation builder; a superpower trying to help through diplomacy as often as possible. So the quote from an issue of “NewsWeek” in 2004 and Petraeus’ weighted statement about war as a whole stuck with me maybe more than others. What I’d hope, regardless of politics, is that everyone can look at this lifelong military man and, upon his retirement from the military and now from the CIA, say that he was the right man for the job.
But it seems that has come to an end.
I don’t know who to blame. I look, as most people fairly or unfairly tend to do, at the media first. In the age of 24-hour news channels needing to fill air time while simultaneously needing to sensationalize in order to garner ratings, we are bombarded by constant information that seemingly no one has processed to check if it had actual relevant or pertinent news in it. Instead of news, we get gossip and speculation and conspiracies and sex because literally everything I just mentioned sells remarkably well in America. It also means that the non-24 hour news stations have to latch on to those stories just as firmly to compete and compel.
If I’m being totally honest, when I started searching around for things to blame, I dug deep into my growing partisanship and angled my head slightly towards the religious right. I know, I’m horrible and this country needs all its people working together and partisanship only harms America these days. But you’re telling me none of this sounds a little fishy? The people in our country most associated with strong moral beliefs? Look, I’m not saying that’s bad because obviously morals are pretty okay, but if morals about sex trump morals about being an otherwise totally awesome person, then I think we’re in a real bind. I’m not endorsing extramarital affairs; I’m about as anti-that as I am anti-war. But what goes on in General Petraeus’ personal life is of exactly zero consequence to me unless he sells my secrets to foreign spies (foreign spies: I like Pokémon and comic books a whole lot. Oh, and there’s this great show I also love meant for two-year-olds called “Pocoyo” that’s incredibly adorable and maybe you should check it out sometime if you’re not too busy systematically using my secrets to ruin the economy). So yes, it felt more than a little strictly Puritanical to me. Not to mention it was revealed hot off the heels of a crushing presidential campaign loss and Fox News (mostly) has been not not calling it a conspiracy meant to keep President Obama in office.
Regardless of who’s at fault for this blowing up, the world suddenly knows all too much about Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley. A sensible person might ask “Why is that? Did they sleep with Petraeus and now they’re blackmailing him? Oh, or were they actually foreign spies learning state secrets?” No. They appear to be neither. If they were either, this would be a real story and Petraeus, for all his good work and awards would, indeed, have to resign in shame. As they’re not, why does any of this matter in any way? Petraeus has literally killed people in war, but the fact he’s had sex in his life is what makes him need to hang his head (and his illustrious career)? The guy has two kids, I’m pretty sure I could have told you he’d had sex before. Oh, it wasn’t with the right person so now we have to call his judgment and his moral boundaries into question? General Petraeus has served the United States diligently in some capacity for nearly forty years. He’s sixty years old and he’s served American for forty years. I’m almost 24 and I’ve worked at a mini-golf course every summer for eight years and that is literally the longest I’ve committed to something that wasn’t compulsory. I can’t even grasp the level of dedication he’s needed, and I’d be willing to bet that the majority of this country is the same way. I think we’re able, then, to safely say that he hasn’t compromised America’s interests by having some, perhaps, more questionable judgment calls in his personal life. At sixty, I’m pretty firmly of the opinion that he’s figured out how to separate his personal life from state secrets.
I’m not here to judge what Petraeus has done because it’s not my job. Once the FBI realized that neither woman Petraeus had seen was a national security threat, it wasn’t its job either. Maybe people against this view are saying that it’s worth talking about because Petraeus wasn’t fired, he resigned, so the ball’s in our court to determine why he so willingly gave up. First, still not our problem, we should never have been involved in this story in the first place. Second, that’s a trap. If he had fought it and been found out, we’d be outraged that he’d lied to us, like our excuse for impeaching Bill Clinton for a similar not-crime. Okay, Clinton lying under oath was a crime, but he never should have had to have come under oath. Was it wrong to mess around with Monica Lewinsky? Probably on a personal level, yeah. Should we hold our presidents to a higher moral standing than an average citizen, who wouldn’t be publicly ostracized for an affair like that? I don’t know, maybe. I don’t think so though. Once we determined if that would negatively impact his ability to lead (it didn’t and, frankly, the country knew going in that Clinton had womanizing tendencies in him), we should have dropped it. Same deal with Petraeus.
So why haven’t we dropped it? There’s kind of a perfect storm of horrible reasons. We live in an age where news is sensationalized to sell. We have a weird and unhealthy relationship with sex that lets us obsess over it while concurrently forbidding it to show its dirty face when we’re around. We embrace reality television and all the dramas that it spawn. We live in an incredibly and dangerously divisive political climate. We like to watch people fall, especially people we secretly suspect are somehow better than us. Okay, all of that and more applies. So why, then, should we drop it? First and foremost, pragmatically, we have better and more important things to do with our time. I dare you not to think of even one, if not tens. Second, we’re ruining the proud career of a great man, an example of a dedicated soldier who knew the cost of war better than most. He’s  likely got enough to deal with in his life right now, he doesn’t need us mucking about in it too. And last (for the purposes of this column, anyway), because we’re better than that. We’re better than our soap operas and our reality shows. We’re better than our politics. We’re better than our insecurities and our shortcomings. We’re better than everything about this story that shouldn’t be. At least I hope we are, because when we’re not, it’s unbearably ugly.