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Petraeus and the cult of US generals?

The downfall of retired General David Petraeus, once America’s most prominent post-9/11 military leader, has stunned a nation. Why does the US hold its top military commanders in such high esteem — and what are the consequences?

Report by BBC Online

America’s 12th president was so apolitical that before he ran for the job in 1848, he had never voted.

But Zachary Taylor had been a successful general during the US-Mexican War. That was enough to take the Whig Party nomination — and win the White House.

“Generals have played a very central role in American politics — this cult of the general goes back to Washington and the Continental Army,” says Ron Chernow, a biographer of George Washington.

“In Britain they get knighthoods. We reward them with political positions in high office.”

Now, Petraeus, the most prominent military leader in a generation, who went on to head the CIA and had been mentioned as a future presidential candidate, has wrought his own downfall in a dalliance with his biographer.

General John Allen, a marine and Petraeus’ successor as commander in Afghanistan, has been accused of exchanging “inappropriate communications” with a second woman involved in the scandal.

Petraeus’ disgrace — in a matter that has little apparent connection to his performance as a military leader — opens the way for a needed public discussion, says Andrew Bacevich, visiting research fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and a retired army colonel.

“Knocking him off the pedestal — this huge standing that he had — ought to create a climate in which serious people can begin to ask serious questions about why our military has not delivered on our expectations” in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says.

America’s adoration of its generals dates back to its founding years, when military leaders defended the country from the perceived twin threat of European invaders and Native American tribes.

George Washington, the first president, had commanded the army that won independence from Great Britain. At the time, Americans’ sense of national identity was weak — they still considered themselves citizens of their respective states first.

Washington’s army was one of the first national institutions, and he embodied it, says Chernow.

Since then, generals have exemplified much of what Americans profess to love — and distrust — about their democracy.

They are seen as having worked their way up through the ranks even from modest backgrounds. General Ulysses Grant, who commanded victorious Union armies in the Civil War and was later president, was the son of a tanner.

President Andrew Jackson was the son of Scots-Irish emigrants to the US. Before the White House, he was a general who won glory in the War of 1812 by defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans.

“They earn their status on the basis of ability, and they get great public trust,” says Richard Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Even though they are adept at manoeuvring within military institutions, generals are seen as unsullied by national politics and its backroom deal-making or potential for moral compromise.

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