Petraeus: Hero is a dangerous word

The country was distraught; the world was shocked when it heard that man with no flaws and impeccable integrity was found to have been involved in a peccadillo with a woman who had been his biographer. The former general had lead U.S. troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently, he took off his uniform and put on “the suit” to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

It was not too long ago that 60 Minutes did a feature on the general. He was presented as an almost god-like figure; keeping himself in remarkable physical shape  with long jogs every morning, while being a true student of war with remarkable acumen about strategy and the handling the men and women he commanded.

In its November 26, 2012 edition, Time Magazine reported, “The U.S.’s entire security apparatus seems rattled. And every news cycle brings hew questions about the judgment, morals, methods and command focus of some of America’s most powerful public servants.”

The article also includes reference to how Paula Broadwell, Petraeus’ biographer and lover, wanted to present a special birthday gift to the general. Petraeus and Broadwell were born twenty years and two days apart, so apparently they have shared their birthdays together. Because of Petraeus’ compulsive commitment to physical fitness (something Broadwell also shared), Broadwell tried to arrange a bicycle tour with Lance Armstrong. It didn’t take place, because scandal was in the air about all three of them.

Petraeus and Armstrong had public personae; Broadwell did not. Armstrong was considered a hero because of his seven wins in the Tour de France and his outstanding charitable work in the fight against cancer. Petraeus was the presumably flawless military commander and director of the CIA.

The mighty have fallen.  That’s what happened to Petraeus and Armstrong; the cyclist for using illegal performance-enhancing drugs and the general for an illicit affair. However, anyone can fall if he or she is placed on a pillar or perch. Everyone, including our heroes, walk by putting one foot in front of the other.  We all need air to breathe and water to drink.

We can do a favor to those among us who for whom we hold special admiration by giving them credit for their accomplishments and recognizing that, like the rest of us, they are mortal and have flaws. No one should have to try to live up to perfection, because no one can do so. When we learn of the flaws of those whom we admire most, in many ways it is affirming. It reminds us that no one is immune from reaching hills they cannot climb; from setting goals they cannot achieve; and from living in a way that includes flaws as well as accomplishments.

Time Magazine further reminds us, “The guy [Petraeus] is supergifted, superdetermined, supercommitted. He’s the closest thing most of us have ever met to a superman, but he’s still a man.”

Petraeus needed to be removed from his position as director of the CIA. This is not because he succumbed to a temptation that many a man would. Rather, it is because of the sensitivity of his position and the secrets that he harbored from both his time as head of our espionage agency, as well his commanding position in the military. His affair made him a target for blackmail. He affirmed that notion by trying for as long as he could to keep his job at the CIA, all the while using sloppy techniques to try keep his affair secret. As far as we now know, he did not compromise any secure data. However, it’s likely that Congressional committees will investigate the affair. If they don’t find that any national security was compromised, they will at least have titillating gossip. As the story gets more and more complex, members of Congress, who often see themselves as without flaws, will likely engage in unseemly leaking of the gossip. And so the world turns, with none of us even approaching perfection.