The Thinking 

How Holly Petraeus Was Doubly Betrayed

November 12, 2012


IN A COMMENT at VFR,  Henry McCulloch writes:

There is one aspect of l’affaire Petraeus I do not think I have seen discussed. Yet it is critical to understanding both how Petraeus got where he did in the Army, and what a colossal betrayal of Mrs. Petraeus his infidelity represents (even beyond the sinful betrayal that adultery always is).

David Petraeus was an accomplished cadet at West Point and then had the kind of assignments that indicate a young officer is carefully being groomed for advancement. His career features tours as a general’s aide and graduate study at Princeton, both valuable tickets for the officer with stars in his eyes to punch.

In addition to attending West Point, Petraeus also taught there.  In the Army ongoing association with West Point remains a Very Big Deal.  Not to say that Petraeus is not an intelligent and hard-working man, with — until he met Paula Broadwell — astute political instincts.

How, one might ask, did Petraeus — a man with no family connections within the Army’s officer corps — grease the skids so well for his meteoric career, when he was surrounded by officers in the same league as he, many of whom were the sons of prominent Army officers themselves?  Nepotism has always been a fact of life in the U.S. officer corps, although most Americans may not be aware of its extent.

Did Cadet Petraeus sense how important those kinds of connections might be to his Army career?  Whether for love, promotion, or both, Petraeus made his best career move while still at West Point.  He married into the Army’s aristocracy by wooing and winning the daughter of the Superindent of the Military Academy, the lieutenant general president-equivalent of West Point: young Holly Knowlton!  If for promotion, Petraeus chose well.  After his tour as the Supe, William Knowlton was promoted to general and served as a four-star in senior NATO posts.  So Holly made David the son-in-law of a well-regarded and well-connected four-star general at the very beginning of his commissioned career.  This can be very helpful for one’s military advancement.  (Truth-in-advertising: a cousin of mine who was an Air Force lieutenant general knew Knowlton at West Point and later, and thought very highly of him.)  While he was the Supe, Knowlton got national press when two expelled cadets, one busted for drinking on post, the other for cheating, challenged the Academy’s famed Honor Code; Knowlton led the Army’s fight to keep the Honor Code at West Point.  The case went to the Supreme Court where the Army won.  Same result today?  I wonder.  Just as I wonder if the Army today would fight hard for the Honor Code.

Petraeus, then, has doubly betrayed Mrs. Petraeus.  Not only has he cheated on his wife, he has betrayed the one person who more than any other helped make his glittering career possible.  The ranks of retired Army colonels and lieutenant colonels are replete with brilliant and devoted officers who, for lack of patronage and connections, went no further up the greasy pole.  While the same is true of all the services, I think these kinds of connections are probably most important in the Army.  Maybe the social changes roiling the armed forces will make that less true; I suspect it will simply mean that more women benefit from nepotism than before.

Perhaps fortunately for David Petraeus, General Knowlton died in 2008 and never knew of his son-in-law’s infidelity.  I’m sure that’s one conversation Petraeus would never have wanted to have; Bill Knowlton had quite a reputation as a tough hombre.

Laura writes:

One wonders if Petraeus would have betrayed his wife if his father-in-law were alive.

—- Comments —-

James N. writes:

Well, I must say I am shocked. I think the relationship with Mrs. Broadwell is understandable. Bad, but understandable.

The father-in-law component violates the man code. Big time.

Petraeus is no longer “like any other man, only more so.” Now, he’s a weasel.

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