Victor Davis Hanson on the Love Lives of History's Great Generals
“You’re a very bad man. ” So yelled Dorothy at the Wizard of Oz, once the imposing, larger-than-life face on the screen was revealed to be a mere projection of a tiny old man behind a curtain fidgeting with levers and knobs.
“No, my dear.” The embarrassed all-too-human wizard answered back, “I’m a very good man. I'm just a very bad wizard.”
Given the lurid allegations about Gen. David Petraeus with Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley—many of them still unproven but perhaps with still more to surface from an FBI investigation—is the wizard Petraeus now revealed as a “very bad man”? Or is he just a “very bad general”—or both, or neither?
All we know for now is that Petraeus has confessed to a single extramarital relationship with his biographer Paula Broadwell. And he insists that the affair developed after he left the Army, during his directorship of the CIA. Under convoluted circumstances, the tryst became known to the FBI and, shortly after, to the Obama administration, leading to Petraeus’s resignation 72 hours after the 2012 presidential election. But what has all this got to do with any assessment of Petraeus as a military commander in the field?
Most Americans remain ambivalent about the personal lives of their politicians—how could they not be given the legacy of Bill Clinton? But even in the past, they seemed to have put up with infidelity and did not consider the affairs of a Warren Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, or John F. Kennedy as referenda on their political effectiveness. But there were important qualifications: The lapses should not involve illegality and be kept largely out of the newspapers—which stand in stark contrast to the public scandals that ruined the reputations of John Edwards, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eliot Spitzer, and others. It helps also to be effective politicians. They weather personal scandals far better than do mediocrities, whose fall from public life is rarely missed. Schwarzenegger’s sexual failings were well known—and dismissed—when he ran for California governor in a wave of popular goodwill, but came back to haunt him only when as a two-term ineffective governor, his tryst with his housekeeper became the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back of voter forgiveness.
Judging Generals as Generals
Are generals, however, to be judged under different rules? Unlike most politicians, they operate under more stringent codes of personal conduct and are often in harm’s way with responsibilities for the lives of thousands under their commands.
History offers some rough guidelines to the real men who wore masks of command. In a word, many of the best were as pursuant of women as they were of the enemy—and the former did not seem to impair the latter. Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, and Plutarch have as much to say about Alexander the Great’s alcohol-driven sexual liaisons as they do about his brilliance on the battlefield. The court biographer Suetonius related that Julius Caesar—the finest general that Rome produced—was alleged by a critic to be, “Every woman’s man, and every man’s woman.” Cleopatra seduced both Caesar and Marc Antony when they deployed to Egypt.
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