Petraeus backs me up: We’ve ceded our military to professionals

The United States needs a citizen-based military. The worst political mistake any American commander in chief ever made was ending the draft. All U.S. citizens should be called to duty.

There, I’ve said it, and my fellow liberals can clasp at their Pachuca beads in alarm, but I honestly believe it. And retired Gen. David Petraeus has backed me up.

David Petraeus is something of a minor god to me. That fact has cost me one of the best friendships I ever had, but at the end of the day, Petraeus is the guiding light of American military morality.

Yes, yes, he committed some minor indiscretions as commander America’s then-dominant military adventure, but my worst criticism of him is that his head was turned by the flattering attentions of a pretty journalist. And if you think for a moment that she didn’t calculate, to some extent, her influence on the general, I’ll let you in on a little secret: She is a journalist, and to her, the story was everything, and there isn’t a one of us who, in her situation, wouldn’t have done the same thing. She bears her share of the blame, not because she is female, but because she is a journalist, and we will use whatever we have at hand to get the story.

Remember that if you drink with me.

Besides, when measured against what today’s so-called commander in chief already has admitted to doing, and does in front of TV cameras every day, David Petraeus is an icon of propriety. Hell, even his name is both biblical and Hellenic – David Petraeus! You can see him leading his troops against the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites and standing there shoulder-to-shoulder with Zerphos and Spyromilios and Nikolaos Plastiras.

And so, if you want to know the state of the relationship between We the People of the United States of America and the men and women who are in our military forces, you’d best heed the words of this seasoned scholar-warrior.

The reality of our dissonant relationship – love the warrior, hate the war – smacked me in the face as I was binge-watching Ken Burns’ “Vietnam” mini-series on PBS. During the week that I spent staring at the screen and trying to reconcile my own childhood with the events and images that were at once familiar and new, I read an essay by Tom Englehardt on

Make no mistake, Salon is no fan of David Petraeus. Know also that, while I check in on the left-wing snowflakes at Salon almost daily, I hold them in no great regard. They are as knee-jerk as anyone writing for Breitbart, but I forgive them as surely as my libertarian friends and family members forgive … well, Breitbart.

But Englehardt is a fairly even-handed pundit, for a liberal, and he wrote a piece recently on how the quagmire that is Afghanistan/Iraq has answered Petraeus’ own question about the war he inherited in 2003: “Eight years and eight divisions?” Englehardt’s piece is very good and worth reading by anyone of middling intelligence.

In his essay, Englehardt noted that Petraeus had, in his doctoral dissertation at Princeton in 1987, “called for the military high command to be granted a far freer hand in whatever interventions the future held.”

It’s worth noting that Petraeus’ dissertation was a critique of the Vietnam War., which was pretty much history to the young Army officer. One of the criticisms that continues to echo, even through Ken Burns’ rendition of the war, is that civilians and their politics meddled too deeply into the prosecution of the war. It is not an invalid criticism. Their own recorded conversations reveal that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon both were more interested in their own political futures than they were about the men and women bleeding and dying in Vietnam.

Englehardt’s point is this: In response to Vietnam, we’ve ceded control of our military might – the point of our national spear – to the soldier wielding it.

“In that sense,” Englehardt writes, “in 1987, (Petraeus) was already mainlining into a twenty-first-century world in which the U.S. military continues to get everything it wants (and more) as it fights its wars without having to deal with either an obstreperous citizen army or too many politicians trying to impose their will on its actions.”

This is what we get when we opt for the all-volunteer military. We do not get a citizen army, which the U.S. Constitution clearly calls for, but rather a military of professionals — mercenaries, really, who do it for the money, the family, the glory, the realization of patriotic fantasies, whatever it is that goads men and women to wade into lethal confrontations.

In other words, we do not get Sparta, where every man was a soldier when needed, but Rome, an empire that grew fat and lazy as it hired its armies to conquer distant lands. And we all know how that turned out.

I do not hold David Petraeus liable for this consequence; rather, he is the man we have put on the parapet reporting back to us what he sees. And this is why he continues to earn my respect and admiration. Recently, when asked about the admonition from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that it would be “highly inappropriate” to get into a debate with a four-star general, Petraeus strongly disagreed, saying, “we, in uniform, protect the rights of others to criticize us.”

Well, that’s exactly the indoctrination I got as a lowly private E-1 in 1975 in my first few hours as a soldier in the United States Army.

I was in the vanguard of the all-volunteer Army, having successfully evaded conscription for several years only to find myself faced with military service as the only “out” from my own personal quagmire. Anyone who knows me knows that I consider my enlistment as the second-best decision I ever made.

My only regret is that I had to be pushed to the wall before I did the right thing and served my country. It would have been better if I had been compelled to serve right out of high school; I’d have been a better man for it, and a lot earlier.

David Petraeus knows this and, I think, deep in our hearts, all of my fellow Americans know it, too.


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