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Petraeus walked away with an insulting slap on the wrist.



By ‘Hunter’
Best Defense guest columnist

I don’t think GEN David Petraeus’ punishment fit the crime — especially when measured against other high profile leakers (e.g. Scooter Libby, Manning etc.). Petraeus walked away with an insulting slap on the wrist. Tom Ricks often proposes to hold Generals accountable for their operational failures. But Tom is more generous regarding personal or moral failures. In the case of the Petraeus case, I understand that the adultery wasn’t operational, but the compromise of classified information most certainly was.

Recently, 34 character references submitted on Petraeus’ behalf were released. Both Petraeus and Paula (Kranz) Broadwell are USMA graduates, as were many of those who wrote letters on Petraeus’ behalf. As another USMA graduate, I wonder if any of those supporters, before putting pen to paper, recalled one of the plebe knowledge pieces we committed to memory:

“Brevet Major William Jenkins Worth’s Battalion Orders: But an officer on duty knows no one — to be partial is to dishonor both himself and the object of his ill-advised favor. What will be thought of him who exacts of his friends that which disgraces him? Look at him who winks at and overlooks offenses in one, which he causes to be punished in another, and contrast him with the inflexible soldier who does his duty faithfully, notwithstanding it occasionally wars with his private feelings (my emphasis). The conduct of one will be venerated and emulated, the other detested as a satire upon soldiership and honor.”

In short, this statement says never let your personal friendships overwhelm your professional duty to maintain high and impartial standards. This is a lesson not exclusive to USMA. And yet, there are many calls in these character letters to “overlook offenses in one,” Petraeus, that were more severely punished in others.

The mix of letter-writers included military and civilians, former seniors, peers and subordinates. A few conundrums present themselves here. First, I find it unsavory to have subordinates, even former ones, writing character letters. In an unequal power dyad, the opportunity to pressure or be pressured is omni-present.

Second, one must wonder what part these people played in Petraeus’ downfall? Many were no doubt present at some point in time; the Broadwell relationship started in 2006. GEN Petraeus worked with many of the letter writers between 2006 when the ‘academic’ mentorship started and 2012 when the adulterous relationship became public. How many aides/executive officers/chiefs of staffs etc., who controlled physical and virtual access to the General, erred in allowing a questionable fraternization (from the outset) morph into a multi-year relationship and, eventually, grow completely out of hand?

As in the SOUTHCOM GO alcohol fueled altercations example, if Petraeus had friends, and it’s clear by these letters he did, they should have intervened in his inappropriate friendship with Broadwell well before it got physical. Many of his so-called supporters in these letters to the judge likely were inert or oblivious bystanders to his fall. To be sure the General and the LTC are most culpable, but with friends like these….

‘Hunter’ is an Army officer in the Reserve Component. This article reflects his own views, which are not necessarily those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. gummint.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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