A General Lesson

David Petraeus was a decorated leader and strategic thinker. Why did he risk everything on an affair? 

David Petraeus in July 2011

Photo by Barbara Sax/AFP/Getty Images.

Among those who have long known Gen. David Petraeus, those who served under his command in wartime, sat with him in the White House Situation Room, or helped him rewrite Army doctrine at Fort Leavenworth, the most gnawing question about the scandalous affair that led to his resignation and doomed his career on Friday is this: How could he—this acclaimed leader and figure of rectitude—allow such a thing to happen?

Seen in context, the mystery, while shocking, is not so unfathomable.

Paula Broadwell, the woman with whom he had this affair, writes in her fawning biography of Petraeus that they first met when she was in graduate school at Harvard and he came to give a talk about counterinsurgency strategy. She approached him afterward and expressed interest in the subject; they exchanged cards. Soon, she decided to write a Ph.D. dissertation on his leadership style and, when he took command in Afghanistan, asked if she could come observe him in action. He agreed.

The key to this initial attraction was probably not sexual but rather biographical. Broadwell had once been a West Point cadet, like Petraeus. She’d had training as a parachutist, as Petraeus had in his youth.* She was obsessed with physical fitness, especially running, as was Petraeus. In short, regardless of gender, Broadwell was exactly the sort of aspiring officer-intellectual that Petraeus was keen to mentor.

The impulse was not unique to Petraeus. It grew out of the ethos of West Point’s social science department, where Petraeus had taught in the mid-1980s. The department, known as “Sosh,” was founded just after World War II by a visionary ex-cadet and Rhodes Scholar named George A. “Abe” Lincoln. Toward the end of the war, as the senior planning aide to Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall, Lincoln realized that the Army needed to breed a new type of officer to help the nation meet its new global responsibilities in the postwar era. This new officer, he wrote to a colleague, should have “at least three heads—one political, one economic, and one military.” He took a demotion, from brigadier general to colonel, so he could return to West Point and create a curriculum “to improve the so-called Army mind” in just this way: a social science department, encouraging critical thinking, even occasionally dissent.

Lincoln also set up a program allowing cadets with high scores in Sosh classes to go study at a civilian graduate school, with West Point paying the tuition. In exchange, the cadets, after earning their doctorates, would come back and teach for at least three years. Once they fulfilled that obligation, Lincoln would use his still-considerable connections in Washington to get them choice assignments in the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House, a foreign embassy, or a prestigious command post.

He would later articulate a philosophy in personnel policy broadly: “Pick good people, pick them young before other pickers get into the competition, help them to grow, keep in touch, exploit excellence.”

Over the decades, a network of Lincoln’s acolytes—and the acolytes of those acolytes—emerged and expanded. They called themselves the “Lincoln Brigade.” When these alumni-officers were appointed to high-level positions, they’d usually call Col. Lincoln—or, later, his successors—and ask for the new crop of top Sosh cadets, or the most promising junior faculty members, to come work as their assistants.

In the course of his own career, Petraeus had mined this network assiduously. Many of the colleagues who helped him devise the “plot to change the American way of war” (as the subtitle of my forthcoming book about them puts it) came out of the Sosh program and referred to themselves proudly as members of the “Lincoln Brigade” or the “West Point mafia.”

When Petraeus met Broadwell, he no doubt saw in her a promising new recruit for the network.

Precisely what happened next, when this mentor-protégé relationship turned into something else, is not clear. Many of Petraeus’ associates in Kabul, Afghanistan, wondered at the time if something was going on. Petraeus got along famously well with writers and journalists; he cultivated their trust, in part because he liked talking with them, in part because he saw press relations as a key ingredient of “information operations”—a classic military technique to shape the message of a campaign to civilian populations, both in the war zone and on the home front. (I was one of those reporters.) But Broadwell was allowed unusually close access. She was given a room at headquarters. On most early mornings, the two went on 5-mile runs together. Some, including myself, reasoned that this didn’t necessarily imply anything hair-raising: Petraeus went on 5-mile runs with lots of reporters and other visitors. Still, at least one of his assistants warned him to be wary of “appearances.”

Two other things about Broadwell that made her different from his usual crop of acolytes: She was very attractive, and, by all accounts, she went a bit ga-ga for the general. Her biography, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, is essentially a valentine to the man. In the process of courting him while writing it, she may have made herself irresistible.

Still, it is likely that, at the outset, Petraeus was drawn more to her C.V. than to her glamour, more to her prospects as a protégé than as a mistress. Afghanistan proved to be a case study in the danger of placing too much faith in intellectual ideas—in this case, Petraeus’ ideas about counterinsurgency doctrine, which never had much chance of yielding fruit on that country’s harsh plains. Paula Broadwell may be, among other things, a case study in the danger of getting too close to the swooning sirens of would-be intellectual protégés.

Correction, Nov. 11, 2012: This article originally stated that Paula Broadwell joined the light infantry officers’ corps upon graduation from West Point. She did not. (Return to the corrected sentence.)