Two four-star generals, a shirtless FBI agent, socialite twins, and a biographer apparently driven mad by obsession — that’s where we are today in the General Petraeus scandal. But while the media gleefully wades into the salacious wreckage of personal lives and careers, they are missing the much more important lessons about government power and accountability.
The Petraeus affair is indeed a Greek tragedy, but is it Icarus or Narcissus?
Stay with me, this is not an idle comparison. Perhaps in part because his name sounds Greek (actually Germanic-Dutch origin), the Petraeus affair has drawn its fair share of “Greek Tragedy” headlines. The literati overuse the term, but if applied with more precision, ancient Greek Myths can illuminate some truth behind the increasingly bizarre and brazen Petraeus fiasco.
First we have Icarus, son of genius inventor Daedalus, who was imprisoned on the Island of Crete by King Minos. To escape, Daedalus invented wings, held together with wax, and warned his son not to fly too close to the sun. The son, in a fit of hubris, went too high in the sky, the heat melted his wings, and he drowned.
This timeless tale of hubris is probably closest to the media narrative of General Petraeus. With his tremendously successful career in military and government service, Petraeus was hailed in the media as the true warrior-scholar. The dominant narrative is that his fall from grace resulted from the human failings we all share. Essentially, anybody can make a mistake and be overtaken by hubris for a moment. Right?
Ah, but there is another tale, more known for the word it leaves us than the fable it passed down—that of Narcissus. He was a hunter so taken in with his own beauty, he falls in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and stares at it until he falls in and drowns.
This gives us the term narcissist, and if you want to understand what brought General Petraeus low, this is the place to start: narcissism.
Many shy away from anecdotal attacks on reputation, particularly of a highly touted Four Star General. But “King David” Petraeus, as he was known during his command in Iraq, had a reputation for imperiousness and an impeccably high self-regard. You were either with him or against him, and being against was not good for your own career aspirations.
Petraeus’s handling of the media is the stuff of legend. This reached points of hagiography before word of the Broadwell affair broke. Until that bombshell landed, Petraeus was given the lion’s share of credit for turning around the Iraq War and bringing some modicum of stability to Mesopotamia with the surge.
This should have raised more eyebrows than it did. Credit for the success of the Iraq surge belongs to the hundreds of thousands of enlisted, non-commissioned and officers on the ground who risked or lost their lives, were away from loved ones, and honored America with their bravery and sacrifice. Generals may receive more applause—and at times more blame—than they deserve, but in the case of Petraeus, this disparity reached new heights.
And we haven’t yet touched upon the more recent revelations of narcissistic inclinations. Why would anyone running a secret intelligence agency think it appropriate to have close and continuing contact with a biographer while still on the job? Why did Petraeus take the CIA Director position if he was compromised? He could have retired from the military and sorted out his private life. Government service is not a permanent prison.
But alas, the narcissistic mind believes one is needed—even essential— and therefore irreplaceable. Petraeus thought he was the best and only man for the job. That the sort of unethical conduct we have seen from General Petraeus—and now perhaps General Allen—would likely end the careers of those lower on the bureaucratic scales in either the military or CIA tells the whole tale.
There may be much more to the Petraeus scandal than we yet know, and the political intrigue is already growing thick. But from the facts that have already been established, we can see General Petraeus as another powerful, self-deluding government official who began to think the rules did not apply to him. And he was wrong.