The Military God of America's Losing Wars

Former CIA director David Petraeus arrives to meet with U.S. President elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in late 2016. (Photo: Getty)

The Military God of America's Losing Wars

Unlike previous celebrated generals in U.S. history, today's leading military minds are not expected to ever win wars

I recently read Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. No book -- that antiquated object that displays writing on pages of paper -- has gotten news attention quite like it in a long time. Of course, that's what happens when only one person truly matters anymore -- and you know just whom I mean. Wolff's account is claustrophobic in a way only imaginable in the age of Trump. Once you plunge into the White House with him, you never again leave the premises or the company of the bizarre cast of characters inhabiting it.

Still, amid the controversy that began with the initial revelations of that book's explosive contents; the instant threat from President Trump's lawyers to sue if it were actually published ("defamation by libel"); the record book sales that followed; Trump's tweets about the book ("a work of fiction"), Wolff ("a total loser"), and those who spilled the beans to him ("sloppy Steve Bannon"); Wolff's claims about Trump's mental state ("he's lost it") and the president's defense of it ("a very stable genius"); and Trump's further attacks on Wolff followed by more bombshells about life in Trumpland via Wolff's interviews with various media figures; and... well, you get the idea. Yet there was one line that no one seemed to quote. Amid all the claustrophobic fire and fury of the news coverage, I suspect no one (except me) even noticed it. So let me offer it to you with a little context as my own contribution to the Wolff imbroglio. Trump adviser Steve Bannon, whose revelations to Wolff blew him out of Trump's orbit, evidently wasn't a great fan of the president's national security adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. According to Wolff, he "began a campaign to brand McMaster as a globalist, interventionist, and all around not-our-kind-of-Trumper -- and, to boot, soft on Israel."

In a manner not atypical of the book, Wolff adds, "It was a scurrilous, albeit partly true, attack." And then came that (to me) telltale sentence: "McMaster was in fact talking to Petraeus often." The reference is to former General and CIA Director David Petraeus (who lost that position by passing classified information to his biographer, also his lover, for which he pled guilty to a crime). Petraeus nonetheless remains the go-to military god of the twenty-first-century American pantheon of war. He's the modern stand-in for Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Douglas MacArthur -- the only catch being that, unlike them, he didn't win his wars; not via his famous "surge" in Iraq, nor as the head of U.S. Central Command overseeing the war on terror in the Greater Middle East, nor in his commandership of the war in Afghanistan. In an age when winning American generals are like polar bears in the tropics, after 16 years of constant warfare across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, he's the best this country has to offer.

Under the circumstances, perhaps it should be no surprise that the first bit of notoriety for the man who became America's "surge general" par excellence came from his defense of a losing war he had had no part in: Vietnam. As TomDispatch regular U.S. Army Major Danny Sjursen, author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad, shows this week in stunning detail, he wasn't alone. It seems that the military brass of the present era is still wedded to that war (or at least a "winning" version of it) in a way unlikely to be "put asunder" anytime soon.

So read Sjursen's "The War That Never Ends (for the U.S. Military High Command)" and think again about just what it means that one of the three key generals Donald Trump placed atop his administration is talking regularly (and assumedly getting advice from) David Petraeus and probably isn't alone in doing so.