By William Pfaff
"Duty, Honor, Country" is the West Point motto, but it seems to have lost what once was its compelling power over the men of the Long Gray Line, as they pursue the military careers that follow graduation. I am not speaking primarily about the marital and extra-marital entanglements of the generals and naval flag-officers who enjoy the luxuries, and there are many, that accompany the duties of assuring the American nation's security.
I am thinking of the fact that these generals and admirals do not win any wars anymore. The last real victory was the Second World War, actually won (in the common view of historians) by the Soviet Army — which admittedly would probably not have succeeded had it not been for the second and third fronts provided by Britain's desert victories and the Western Allies' Normandy Invasion in 1944.
After that came the war with North Korea, and its Chinese army and air reinforcements, which ended in stalemate (still legally unsettled), and then Vietnam, an American defeat.
The most recent American-led victory was the 1990-91 Gulf War, but that was a big coalition against a small country with a foolish Arab dictator, who more than a decade later, and after another allied coalition war, was found hiding in a hole in the ground.
In between were Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada in October of 1983, to rescue that island of 100,000 people from Cuban construction workers. American casualties were taken from US naval gunfire and air strikes due to a lack of maps with coordinates. Army-Navy communications were by commercial telephone through phone booths on Grenada, since no one had assured common radio facilities for the military and naval services.
After that, in 1989, there was Operation Just Cause, when American combined forces captured Panama's President Manuel Noriega, wanted for drug dealing and national insolence. It took 14 days, and much very loud music played outside the Apostolic Nunciature, where Noriega had sought asylum.
Then came the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — American defeats. General David Petraeus was involved with both. He served in Iraq following the invasion, training what was to be the new Iraqi army. Then he went home to rewrite the Marine Corps' field manual on small wars, which dated back to the 1899–1902 Philippine Insurrection (by Islamic separatists; their resistance goes on today).
Petraeus updated it, for which he won much praise, incorporating "Lessons Learned" in British and French colonial wars and the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars. The principal lesson was that one should be as nice to the natives as possible, even while blasting their homes and families. Send them civics and language teachers, sponsor elections, and promote women's rights.
In Iraq, he supported the Sunni tribes' uprising against the Shiite majority, and sponsored the US troop "surge," widely credited in the press with winning the war. After he had left Iraq, a Shia-dominated government was elected, making the country effectively an ally of Iran. The US withdrew from Iraq, under pressure.
Washington has subsequently been supporting the Sunni initiatives by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to sustain the uprising in Syria against the Bashar al-Assad government, which is backed by Iran and Russia.
Petraeus became head of Central Command in Tampa in 2008, and later stepped down to take over the Afghanistan coalition command itself. It was then that he played host to his admirer and biographer, Paula Broadwell, with whom he liked to take long runs. Broadwell subsequently chose to send anonymous emails to warn off another woman whom she considered a rival, thus setting off the Washington scandal of the year.
Petraeus today finds he has company in his notoriety. The New York Times on Tuesday published a list of them. Petraeus's successor in Kabul, General John Allen, is currently being investigated because of his voluminous correspondence with Jill Kelley — the recipient of Broadwell's emails.
Others under current or recent investigation for misconduct or improprieties are the head of the newly established Army Africa Command; the deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division (now in Afghanistan); the former commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade (expelled from the army for convictions of bigamy and fraud); and the admiral commanding the Stennis carrier strike group, relieved of command for "inappropriate leadership judgment". Air Force scandals involve charges of rape and assault by instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, and long-running accusations of inappropriate and unconstitutional Protestant fundamentalist religious proselytism and pressures on cadets at the Air Force Academy.
As a former serviceman, I have been long bemused by the proliferation of ribbons and other decorations on the chests of today's high-ranking army officers. Petraeus, who left the military academy in 1974, now is entitled to wear 45 ribbons and 10 metal ornaments on his military blouse (other than unit patches, and parachute and similar badges). He has seen active combat only as commander of the 101st Airborne in the Gulf War. His only combat decoration is the Bronze Star with V (for valor). He wears the prized expert infantry badge, but without the wreath indicating participation in infantry combat.
Possibly a brilliant officer, if a very imprudent one, he has not demonstrated that he is the "American hero" (and potential president) press and politicians have been celebrating.
14 November 2012