Petraeus: The Problem with Heroic Hagiography

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

DCIA_David_PetraeusThis week I read a story at my favorite investigative journalistic website . It concerned the back story about the abrupt fall from grace of CIA Director General David Petraeus, which occurred when it was discovered that his biographer was also his mistress. I’ll provide a link to the story below and a brief synopsis of its conclusions, but it is less the reality of Petraeus’ fall, than the rise of military “heroes” that interests me. A theme that is closely woven into human history since the beginnings of civilization is the myth of the great military leader who rises up to gain command and “saves” the country from evil, external enemies. As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars became a harsh reality of our existence after the trauma of 9/11, one military figure appeared to capture our attention and become invested with the intelligence and the courage to fight our “enemies” and protect the American Way of Life. David Petraeus became that “hero”, was generally given bi-partisan deference and credited with wisdom and talents far beyond his peers. While our governmental system is based on civilian leadership of our military, in the person of the President and his appointees, it seemed that throughout the prosecution of these two ill-starred conflicts the Bush and then Obama administrations deferred to a position of “what would Petraeus do?”

It has been said that history is the chronicle of the winners and I believe there is some truth in that. In the Torah (Pentateuch to Christians) we see Moses, Joshua and David winning great victories for the Hebrews, often the underdogs. They are credited with having God on their side and so their victories are less those of strategy and more those of being “chosen” by God to carry out his will. This is indeed a recurrent theme throughout all civilizations and ethnicities when it comes to warfare. The mythology that grows around warfare is not one army’s defeat of another, but how individuals from the victorious army won through an almost “divine” intervention that gave them the skills to succeed.

The heroic portrayal of “saintly and heroic” individuals is called hagiography. While originally it referred to the glorification of “Saints”, the realities of the false histories produced through the ages of heroes proven to have “clay feet”, has added a more jaded and more prevalent definition of the word. “as a pejorative reference to the works of biographers and historians perceived to be uncritical or “reverential” to their subject” Hagiography exists as a style of propaganda that is used in the creation of mythology that informs a given society. A brief stroll though history will give you an idea of where I’m going with this premise.

Early works that created a mythological view of the military “great man” as the shaper of history can be seen in still pertinent writings of “poets” from two widely different cultures. In Greece we have the works of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” attributed to the poet Homer. This greatest of Greek poets is said to have lived about 850 BCE and he writes of a golden era of heroic Greek history, thought to be the 12th Century BCE. Thus his writings are of a similar era to the “Torah” and from the study of mythology would seem to be part of a common thread in the development of civilization. In the “Iliad” we have the story of the Ten Year Trojan War. While there is indeed some evidence that this “War” actually took place in some form, obviously the “Iliad” is not to be construed as an accurate retelling of history. What is of significance, however, is that it became a formative tale of the Greek people and its heroes shaping the mythology of the burgeoning Hellenist civilization. The central Hero of the Iliad is Achilles. Achilles was so powerful a fighter that his absence, pouting over a slight, throughout most of the siege of Troy, prevents the massive Greek army from overcoming the Trojans. The Trojans greatest hero is the noble warrior Hector. Hector’s killing of Achilles best friend draws Achilles to battle, where he kills Hector and thus the ill fate of Troy follows. To simplify the mythological implications from this epic tale we can say it is the example of a “Great Man” shaping history for mere mortals.

From India, thought to have been written in the 8th Century BCE, comes another great epic story that through its mythology shaped the sophisticated civilization there. “The Mahabharata” also gives an heroic account of a epic war that ended an dynasty and a age, shaping future history. Like the Greek works it is the battles of “Great Men” who shape the climax of this warfare and provide great victories.

“The Mahabharata (Sanskrit Mahābhārata महाभारत, IPA: [məɦaːˈbʱaːrət̪ə]) is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Ramayana.[1]

Besides its epic narrative of the Kurukshetra War and the fates of the Kauravas and the Pandava princes, the Mahabharata contains much philosophical and devotional material, such as a discussion of the four “goals of life” or purusharthas (12.161). Among the principal works and stories that are a part of the Mahabharata are the Bhagavad Gita, the story of Damayanti, an abbreviated version of the Ramayana, and the Rishyasringa, often considered as works in their own right.”

While I’ve actually read the “Bhagavad Gita” I claim no great understanding of the work except that it does glorify its larger then life heroes”. My knowledge of the Indian Cultural history is certainly not scholarly, but I can say that it is one of humanity’s greatest and oldest cultural heritages. We in the West never give it enough credit. My point though in mentioning these two magnificent works is that around the 8th Century BCE, throughout humanity a reshaping of how we humans viewed ourselves took place and transformed the foundational mythologies of human civilization into the one that is common today. At its base are “great/heroic” men, whose deeds shape our lives and whose fame derives from the wars they participate in. The use of this mythological meme is such that through history the mythology surrounding the “great man” has allowed those perceived as that type of  ”hero” to grasp, or come close to grasping power in our world.

A smattering of great names from history will reveal this tendency to mythologize the “great man” and allow the reader to see how similar this plays out throughout our world. Julius Caesar used his fame as a military leader to vault himself to the top of the Roman Empire. Constantine the Great followed a similar path. William the Conqueror, Henry V, Napoleon Bonaparte were the recipients of hagiography in their own and later times reinforcing this heroic image. In America, George Washington, became our first President because of his generalship. Andrew Jackson won “The Battle of New Orleans” two weeks after the war had ended. William Henry Harrison, a man with little else to recommend him used the “Battle of Tippecanoe” to attain the Presidency. U.S. Grant used his victory over the South to become a rather undistinguished President. Teddy Roosevelt made his name as the head of the “Rough Riders” in the Cuba. Dwight Eisenhower’s leadership of the allies in World War II and the hagiographical reverence that followed made him President. In truth not every military hero actually succeeds in attaining the high offices they seek and we can see Douglas McArthur, a hagiographic hero if there ever was one, ending his political rise in ignominy.

Whether successful in grabbing power, or not, the same old theme seems to play out repeatedly in human history. The theme is the glorification of military leaders making them potential political leaders. My view of this is that it rarely coincides that a military leader would make a great civilian leader, but that the ages of historical mythmaking have conditioned much of humanity to think that these “heroes” are those best suited to lead us all. A common thread in this today, is the compulsion of the mainstream media, historians and biographers to produce hagiography’s portraying these leaders as for more heroic than they actually are. With our modern media this glorification of people has accelerated far beyond the accomplishments they have actually had. We saw this especially clearly after 9/11. Such was the anger and fear engendered within the people and the “press” that we all longed to avenge ourselves against the “enemy”, which began as Osama Bin Laden, but morphed into other countries, one of which had no involvement whatsoever. While we expect wisdom and insight from our pundits and our press, we instead had them play stenographer to whatever Administration source fed them the propaganda of revenge. In a “good” vs. “evil” drama, portrayed simplistically as “The War on Terror”, the old human tendency to ennoble “heroes” to give substance to the “plotline” ran rampant. Thus Rudy Giuliani, a highly flawed individual whose popularity was at its nadir before 9/11, became “America’s Mayor” although all he really did was his expected job and in truth he did that badly. This brings me to General David Petraeus.

David Petraeus is by my estimation a brilliant man. He is charismatic, articulate, an adept writer and certainly an intellectual thinker. His military record is an outstanding one. His academic background is definitely distinguished and probably marked him early on as a coming force in our military establishment:

“Petraeus has a B.S. degree from the United States Military Academy, from which he graduated in 1974 as a distinguished cadet (top 5% of his class). He was the General George C. Marshall Award winner as the top graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College class of 1983. He subsequently earned an M.P.A. in 1985 and a PhD degree in International Relations in 1987 from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He later served as Assistant Professor of International Relations at the United States Military Academy and also completed a fellowship at Georgetown University. “

In his military career he had experience all over the world, wherever there was a conflict that had U.S. involvement. While a review of his career history shows that he was no doubt well-known in military and government circles, it was the second Iraq War that catapulted him into the spotlight of public recognition and made him a hero in the eyes of most of the public and especially our mainstream media.

“In 2003, Petraeus, then a Major General, saw combat for the first time when he commanded the 101st Airborne Division during V Corps’s drive to Baghdad. In a campaign chronicled in detail by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Atkinson of The Washington Post in the book In the Company of Soldiers, Petraeus led his division through fierce fighting south of Baghdad, in Karbala, Hilla and Najaf. Following the fall of Baghdad, the division conducted the longest heliborne assault on record in order to reach Ninawa Province, where it would spend much of 2003. The 1st Brigade was responsible for the area south of Mosul, the 2nd Brigade for the city itself, and the 3rd Brigade for the region stretching toward the Syrian border. An often-repeated story of Petraeus’ time with the 101st is his asking of embedded The Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson to “Tell me how this ends,” an anecdote he and other journalists have used to portray Petraeus as an early recognizer of the difficulties that would follow the fall of Baghdad.

In Mosul, a city of nearly two million people, Petraeus and the 101st employed classic counterinsurgency methods to build security and stability, including conducting targeted kinetic operations and using force judiciously, jump-starting the economy, building local security forces, staging elections for the city council within weeks of their arrival, overseeing a program of public works, reinvigorating the political process, and launching 4,500 reconstruction projects in Iraq. This approach can be attributed to Petraeus, who had been steeped in nation-building during his previous tours in nations such as Bosnia and Haiti and thus approached nation-building as a central military mission and who was “prepared to act while the civilian authority in Baghdad was still getting organized,” according to Michael Gordon of The New York Times.[63] Some Iraqis gave Petraeus the nickname ‘King David‘, which was later adopted by some of his colleagues. In 2004, Newsweek stated that “It’s widely accepted that no force worked harder to win Iraqi hearts and minds than the 101st Air Assault Division led by Petraeus.”

The General’s counter insurgency work in Mosul brought him media fame. He was a perfect candidate for hagiography given his brilliance, charisma and eagerness to give interviews. He appeared on “60 Minutes”, was featured in “Time” magazine and received many accolades from the adoring media pundits. As we remember the morass in Iraq, with its frequent bombings, deaths and terrorist activity, our media needed to find a hero to justify what was becoming an obvious debacle. The Bush Administration also needed a heroic figure to distract from the fact that this War was an inappropriate response to 9/11, which had killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi’s and thousands of our troops. When it became apparent that there were no “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, we then received a justification from another hero “created” by another dubious war, Colin Powell and his famous “Pier One” rule: “If you break it, you buy it”. So Petraeus led the “surge” and we declared victory, while Iraq remained in chaos. Petraeus fame grew, ably assisted by his canny way of dealing with the media and the media’s tendency to produce hagiography, rather than reality.

As we now know, Petraeus’ downfall came from a scandal that flared when it became public knowledge that his female biographer, Patricia Broadwell, also became the lover of this married “hero”. That scandal had such an impact that if you now Google Petraeus, you find literally dozens of pages referring to the affair and little else detailing the other aspects of his career. So in the wake of the scandal this comes from the Wiki entry linked above, which deal with Petraeus’ efforts at self promotion:

“Petraeus had a strategy to influence military conditions by using the press relations effectively in the theater and in Washington, according to critics who assessed the general’s military career after his fall from power. On November 13, 2012, Lawrence Korb, Ray McGovern, and Gareth Porter appearing on Al Jazeera English assessed the general’s extensive military-media strategy linking his writings on counterguerrilla operations and subsequent military media efforts to his downfall with a female biographer. Critics observed that the Petraeus media strategy would prove damaging for American policy in the future because of the omissions and distorted interpretations that Washington policymakers, other experts, and the American public accepted from the highly effective Petraeus media contacts.

Military historians have noted the absence of field records for the Iraq and Afghanistan military campaigns, but have not personally been critical of the commanders in theater. One additional aspect of Petraeus’ career that has come under increased scrutiny since his affair came to light has been his lack of a direct combat record in relation to the many awards he received. In particular, his Bronze Star Medal with Valor device has been mentioned in several media reports and questioned by several former Army officers.”

As we know Petraeus’ career led him to become the Director of the CIA and prior to that:


“On October 31, 2008, Petraeus assumed command of the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) headquartered in Tampa, Florida. Petraeus was responsible for U.S. operations in 20 countries spreading from Egypt to Pakistan—including Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.”


“On June 23, 2010, President Obama announced that he would nominate Petraeus to succeed General Stanley A. McChrystal as the commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. The change of command was prompted by McChrystal’s comments about the Obama administration and its policies in Afghanistan during an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. The nomination was technically a positional step down from his position as commander of Central Command, however the President said that he believed that he was the best man for the job.”

Both these positions allowed Petraeus much press exposure and that exposure was overwhelmingly laden with praise and with deference. Finally this led to:

“On April 28, 2011, President Barack Obama announced that he had nominated Petraeus to become the new Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The nomination was confirmed by the United States Senate 94–0 on June 30, 2011. Petraeus was sworn in at the White House on September 6[ and then ceremonially sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia on October 11, 2011.

Sometime in early 2012 the FBI became aware of Petraeus’ affair with Mrs. Broadwell. The information finally reached the Administration’s Executive level in the fall. Petraeus met with President Obama and gave his resignation on November 8, 2012. The rest is history, so they say, but do we understand the true history. Do we know that this was only about an extramarital affair, with a woman who went overboard in jealousy, or was there more threatening things in this story for the U.S. Government?

The article this week is titled: “Petraeus: The Plot Thickens” written by: Douglas Lucas and Russ Baker.

 The story begins with:

“Was the ambitious General David Petraeus targeted for take-down by competing interests in the US military/intelligence hierarchy—years before his abrupt downfall last year in an adultery scandal?

 Previously unreported documents analyzed by WhoWhatWhy suggest as much. They provide new insight into the scandalous extramarital romance that led to Petraeus’s resignation as CIA director in November after several years of rapid rise—going from a little-known general to a prospective presidential candidate in a stunningly brief time frame.

Among other revelations the documents show that:

 -Petraeus was suspected of having an extramarital affair nearly two years earlier than previously known.

 -Petraeus’s affair was known to foreign interests with a stake in a raging policy and turf battle in which Petraeus was an active party.

 -Those providing the “official” narrative of the affair—and an analysis of why it led to the unprecedented removal of America’s top spymaster— have been less than candid with the American people.

 According to internal emails of the Austin-based private intelligence firm Stratfor, General David Petraeus was drawing attention to his private life much earlier than previously believed. Because it was his private life that resulted in his being forced out as CIA director, alterations in our understanding of the time frame are significant.

Until now, the consensus has been that Petraeus began an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, in the fall of 2011, after he retired from the military and took over the CIA”.

After providing the background of the affair and of the publicly known “evidence” the article goes on to say:

“But documents—researched by WhoWhatWhy and published for the first time as part of an investigative partnership with WikiLeaks—suggest otherwise. These documents characterize Petraeus as having regular dinners in early 2010 with Abdulwahab al-Hajri, then Yemen’s ambassador to the US, and note that Petraeus brought to at least one of those dinners a woman “not his wife”—whom the Yemenis believed was “his mistress.” It’s possible—although not confirmed—that this woman was Paula Broadwell, Petraeus’s biographer and mistress, who sent allegedly threatening emails that spawned the strange FBI investigation that precipitated the former Army general’s resignation on November 9, 2012.”

There are some very significant details revealed above. The first is that if the affair was carried on when Petraeus was still in the military then he was guilty of an offense that should lead to a Court Martial. It is against military law to commit adultery and many an enlisted man has actually been court martialled and imprisoned under that law. More importantly though is the allegation of Petraeus including a woman, possibly Broadwell, in what were essentially diplomatic talks held in a social situation. The story goes into many key situations in which Yemen is involved as a foreign policy broker.

The details provided in this article are much greater than the snippets I provide above. I would suggest that people read it in its entirety to see the possibly grave implications in this story that go the heart of U.S. foreign and military policy.  Implications of this go to the known wish of some in the Republican Party who saw Petraeus as a “can’t lose” Presidential candidate and to the internecine warfare that goes on in behind the scenes in our government and whether Petraeus was “taken out” by elements of the Military.

To my mind the Petraeus story is yet another instance where hagiography becomes propaganda and then morphs into mythology. While Petraeus indeed had some successes in the positions he occupied, none of those “successes” were remarkable and many of them were examples of hagiography by the mainstream media, gone wild. Why this military man would actually be considered as Presidential material escapes me, except from my knowledge of this being a repeated theme in world history. Humanity’s history is one of warfare and brutality and yet we glorify those who lead it and make them into almost “Olympian Heroes”.  As long as we lionize and overprize those with skill at killing people en masse then we will also remain a species at war with itself.

Submitted by: Mike Spindell. guest blogger

114 thoughts on “Petraeus: The Problem with Heroic Hagiography”

  1. Michael Murry,

    I skimmed an article about this yesterday, but wasn’t aware of the following:

    “In an Orwellian twist, in military hierarchy the medal will rate above the Bronze Star, given for heroic acts performed under fire by those who are, like, actually there.” (from the Common Dreams link)

  2. Speaking of medal-encrusted military uniforms — a sure sign of Commendation Accumulation Syndrome run amok — just think of the really cool new one here.

    Still, it seems to me a bit odd for the U S. Government to hand out medals for engaging in robot assassinations that the U. S. Government “neither confirms nor denies” ever happened.”

  3. That’s a lot of words to essentially repeat what I already said in a much more succinct manner.

  4. Hagiography is a tool of propaganda and also precedes propaganda. Thus hagiography creates propaganda and propaganda then constructs mythology.” – Mike S

    Here are some fact scenarios wherein that statement seems to be valid to me.

    1) (“Hagiography is a tool of propaganda”) A propagandist is working on a PR project involving Bishop X. They run into a snag because of some of the public record. The only way around it is the sainthood of Bishop X. The propagandist decides to include some text or other information that is not historically supportable, yet the material moves the sainthood process along because the sainthood of Bishop X has a very good PR goal — because Bishop X is extremely popular within the believer and other communities.

    2) (“Hagiography … also precedes propaganda”) A hagiographer is working on the sainthood of Bishop X. Everything is going fine until the hagiographer runs into a snag, because of some inferences in the public record. The only way around it is some propaganda to cleanse or gloss over the blemish in the public record. The hagiographer engages a propagandist to include some text or other information that is not historically supportable, yet the material will move the sainthood process along to the final goal. This propaganda effort is determined to be doable because Bishop X is extremely popular within the believer communities, and the press is lazy and weak at the moment.

    3) (“propaganda then constructs mythology”) In either 1 or 2 above, the result is myth because one definition of myth is: “any invented story, idea, or concept” …

    Basically, the sequence does not have to be one or the other (hagiography, propaganda) going first in a sequence.

    Under various circumstances, either one can go first, the other second.

    Either way, it leads to myth.

  5. The resignation of the Pope may just involve some reflection on Heroic Hagiography.

    One reason is that “The Prophecy of The Popes” predicts that the next Pope will be the last one because it will end with the destruction of Rome itself.

    The prophecy is an ancient one attributed to a Saint (ah hagiography) circa 1143:

    Saint Malachy (Middle Irish: Máel Máedóc Ua Morgair; Modern Irish: Maelmhaedhoc Ó Morgair) (1094 – 2 November 1148) was an Irish saint and Archbishop of Armagh, to whom were attributed several miracles and a vision of the identity of the last 112 Popes (see Prophecy of the Popes). He was the first Irish saint to be canonised by a pope.

    (Wikipedia). One wonders if hagiography existed when he was sainted and whether the prophecy of the last Pope, which is the next Pope, was considered.

    I mean, think about it, Pope anoints a saint, and that saint prophecies about the last Pope hundreds of years in the future.

    Wiggy stuff.

  6. Mike S.

    I had intended to mark my first two comments as “OT”, but didn’t… Sorry to have veered off the track. Thanks for the redirection to the appropriate thread.

  7. So did anything come up about the idea of a get together as we discussed on another thread?

  8. Otteray Scribe 1, February 10, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    Dredd, you are a persuasive devil. Now I am going to have to get out the plastic and spend money. I am easily tempted when it comes to coffee.
    I must issue a disclosure: I am not involved in any way with Gene Hicks.

    If you buy anything from that place you have assumed the risk on your own.

    My poetry, rap, and poetry and rap and … oops … they do have good java bro … 🙂

  9. Mike S,

    To my mind the Petraeus story is yet another instance where hagiography becomes propaganda and then morphs into mythology.”
    Gene H challenged the notion to some extent:


    “Hagiography is a tool of propaganda and also precedes propaganda. Thus hagiography creates propaganda and propaganda then constructs mythology.”

    I submit that you may want to reconsider this statement in light of the nature of some of the first propaganda the world ever saw on a mass scale: the self-propagated mythology of the Pharaohs as God-Kings. A form of “concurrent” might be a better choice than “precedes” …

    I am contemplating the issue and will comment later.

    Why it intrigues me about the sequential progression you asserted is an interview of the linguistics (not languistics) genius Chomsky which I was reading when I passed back through this thread.

    Language is far more than what is reduced to dictionaries, even though dictionaries are invaluable.


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