I’ve been watching the Winter Olympics on TV, and the color commentators for NBC are typically athletes who’ve earned gold medals in the past, like Tara Lipinski in figure skating or Bode Miller in skiing. Why is it, then, when NBC and other networks seek expert “color” commentary on America’s wars, they turn to retired generals like David Petraeus, who’ve won nothing?
I’m not dissing Petraeus here. He himself admitted his “gains” in Iraq as well as Afghanistan were both “fragile and reversible.” And so they proved. The U.S. fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost thousands of troops and trillions of dollars for gains that truly were ephemeral. Despite this disastrous and tragic reality, Petraeus remains the sage on the stage, the go-to guy for analysis of our never-ending wars on PBS, Fox News, and elsewhere.
But then I got to thinking. Sure, Petraeus hasn’t won any wars. But he’s earned a gold medal in public relations. In spin. In 2007 he spun the Surge as a major U.S. victory in Iraq. (Temporary stability, bought at such a high price, did indeed prove fragile and reversible.) A later surge in Afghanistan didn’t prove as spinnable, but in a strange way his adulterous affair, a personal failure, came to obscure his military one. Now he regularly appears as a pundit, the voice of reason and experience, spinning the Afghan war, for example, as winnable as long as Americans continue to give the Pentagon a blank check to wage generational war.
In facilitating the growth of the national security state and ensuring it never takes the blame for its military defeats, Petraeus has indeed excelled in the eyes of those who matter in Washington. He’s no Tara Lipinski on ice or Bode Miller on snow, but when it comes to spinning wars and gliding over the facts, he takes the gold.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at email@example.com. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.