The Tragedy of David

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New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd thinks the players in the Petraeus scandal are like Shakespeare’s MacBeth and Othello. A better analogy would be to another Shakespearean general: Coriolanus.

Shakespearean tragedies are defined by fatal character faults. MacBeth’s was envy; Othello’s was jealousy. Coriolanus, on the other hand, was driven by ambition. And that certainly seems to loom large in the Tragedy of Gen. David Petraeus: a man motivated, from the beginning, by ambition. He wowed them at West Point and climbed the social ladder by wedding the West Point Superintendent’s daughter. He climbed the ranks to earn his fourth star and embraced fame as a military idol.

He didn’t travel alone. He once arrived at a party (hosted by Tampa socialite Jill Kelley) at the head of a 28-car motorcade. He obviously liked having his attractive biographer Paula Broadwell hang on his every word. That he dallied with Broadwell is not too surprising given that she crafted a book that gushes with admiration.

I have never met Gen. Petraeus, but it wouldn’t be too much of a reach to say that I’ve known people like him – and not just in Shakespearean tragedies. In fact, I knew many of the prototypes during my formative year as a military brat.

One of the first lessons I learned was that “rank has its privileges.” When my father, a junior officer, was assigned to a new post, my parents had to call on all the superior officers and their wives to pay their respects, leaving their calling cards – two from my dad and one from my mother. (It would be unseemly for a woman to call on a man.)

A base commander was a demigod of sorts in the military hierarchy. He would be accorded privileges that few dreamed of: aides de camp, orderlies, drivers and underlings. In the small Southern towns where military bases are (mostly) located, there would be a link with the wealthy and socially-connected townsfolk. And there often would be a socially prominent party-giver who would honor the higher ranking staff.

There were strict codes of military conduct – adultery being a crime for example, though certainly not unknown. There also were smaller transgressions. For instance a senior officer in uniform was not permitted to carry packages. I remember that it was my patient mother who lugged groceries home while our uniformed dad walked alongside empty-handed.

Much of the rich social life on military bases was fueled by alcohol, readily available and untaxed in military commissaries. My brother and I were often pressed into service at receptions to serve hors d’oeuvres and even to deliver cocktails. I can remember “Uncle Edgar,” a colonel whose wife had him on the wagon, accepting a clandestinely delivered martini.

During times of combat, military families figuratively drew the wagons together, helping the temporary widows endure the absence of husbands and being supportive during medical emergencies. The pressures of service life, lived far from home towns and relatives, placed strains on marriages. What is surprising is how many service families go on to long marriages. What’s not a surprise is that there can be lapses, scandals even, more easily uncovered in this electronic era.

Men (and now increasingly women) who serve their country are not saints even those who also are heroes. And, while Maureen Dowd may have misplaced her Shakespeare, she was right that the real scandal isn’t the fall from grace but that so many – Americans and Afghans – have lost their lives in war that has lasted too long.