Using one of those overarching dramatic titles we have come to expect in mainstream media news coverage, John Stewart summed up the Petraeus story as “Band of Boners.” It’s the sort of thing that may be inevitable when so much power is given so much free rein by so much secrecy.
The nature of military and spy craft — Sun Tzu and Clausewitz would agree — is that it’s never what it seems. As this unfolding clusterfuck makes clear, an institution devoted to the use of violence and an obsession with secrecy can literally be caught with its pants down by the most ridiculous of petards that even its huge public relations machine can’t save it from.
By now everybody knows the story. A female West Point graduate with a lithe, athletic body pumps up a PhD thesis on General Petraeus into a book, amazingly titled All In. She gets intimate with the general, then sends anonymous threatening emails to a sexy socialite camp-follower at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. The second woman, she feels, is moving in on her general.
It’s appropriate, here, to recall that Henry Kissinger said the greatest aphrodisiac is Power. Henry would know.
The MacDill camp-follower then emails her favorite FBI agent, a bulldog known for vigorously hunting terrorist suspects and for fatally shooting a man near a gate at MacDill under strange circumstances. When the agent’s suspicions are not adequately addressed, he contacts right-wing Congressman Eric Cantor. Something fishy is going on, he tells Cantor. It may be some kind of political cover-up. Maybe the anonymous caller is a terrorist agent from Kenya.
At this point, the case is out of control and enters into Patriot Act snooping mode. Soon, Afghanistan commander Marine General John Allen is being scrutinized for sending tumescent emails to the MacDill camp-follower — along with some 10,000 pages of other stuff.
Making things more interesting, as all this elite heavy breathing was being revealed, the latest James Bond movie, Skyfall, was hitting theaters all over America with a thunderous, special-effects PR campaign. As everyone knows, the imperial west’s favorite spy with the license to kill is a master cocksman in the bedroom known for embedding vixens from Pussy Galore to Holly Goodhead.
Unfortunately for her, Paula Broadwell has a name almost worthy of a Bond film. This, along with her athletically hot physique, makes the “Band of Boners” story that much more fun for the American public. But it’s a classic case of mass distraction worthy of study for what’s not being talked about.
Of course, James Bond and the vast industry of violent and sexy fantasies found in novels, films, television, video games and the internet is all fiction. But what many ordinary citizens who love fantasy sex and violence don’t understand is that the constant pumping of all this fantastic, sexy, violent garbage into their heads has contributed to the building of unprecedented levels of expectation and delusion in their real lives. Life does copy art. Nowhere is this more tragic than in the realm of current politics.
Western males are dazzled and awed by the suavity of Bond and his ilk when it comes to violence and sexual conquest. We males walk out of movie theaters having absorbed a little bit of the Bond power. The same goes for whatever male protagonist we’ve watched for two hours. Bond is like old wine, and we’ve now moved on to more intoxicating heroes who are even more violent and much less suave. The hired killer is a favored archetype now. For example, popular crime writers like Lawrence Block have evolved the classic loner knight protagonist, the private eye, into book and film series about men who are simply hired killers. They aren’t trying to solve a mystery or a crime; they’re just trying to kill somebody. Block’s character Keller is an ordinary American male who enjoys stamp collecting between going around the country to kill people.
Military theory in our national security state is changing in similar ways. The old, post-WWII days of large armies hit a wall with the Bush-era wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. State violence has become more focused, less reliant on size and more reliant on small, highly-trained and extremely secret assassin teams with sophisticated support systems in intelligence and logistics. Stealth is the word. This evolution has occurred coincident with the incredible public rise of David Petraeus to beloved four-star general and, ultimately, as the civilian head of the CIA.
Stanley McChrystal’s career went up like a rocket — and fell — in a similar arc. He began interestingly as a one-star PR spokesman for the invasion of Iraq. Soon, he was running a highly secret war of hunter-killer teams in Anbar Province. Thanks to the military’s cooperating secrecy and PR campaigns, this became known as “the surge.” Iraq was the death knell for massive military deployments. Focused, secret killing by special-ops teams and remotely piloted lethal drones was the new way to fight wars. McChrystal went from one star to four stars virtually overnight. Much of this change has been concentrated and headquartered at the bases for both Central Command (covering the Middle East and SW Asia) and Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, ground zero for the Petraeus Affair.
The affair makes it clear that US culture is still deeply haunted by Puritanism. Much of the coverage takes delight in the prurient elements of the story, which would seem counter to true Puritanism. But a glance backwards suggests such a paradox is nothing new. Consider Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a very racy novel from the 18th century about preserving the honor of young womanhood; it was read from the pulpit where it ironically, we’re told, raised a few boners. Then there’s The Starr Report, a racy expose by prude Ken Starr from the ’90s.
While the Bond franchise uses sex for box office purposes, our media see prurient scandals as an opportunity for better ratings. It’s now a tiresome reality about our culture and media that sex is oftentimes more an issue of censorship for obscenity than violence. As a conceptual experiment, which of the two images below would be considered more obscene? Considered in a serious adult context, both images are relevant to the Petraeus Affair.
A concerned moralist in our moment in history might ask: Where is the media storm about the scandal of ever increasing remotely-piloted lethal drone attacks around the world? Where is the media storm about the increasing use of special ops assassin teams?
The answer is: Nowhere. Nowhere is the moral scandal of ever-more-technologically-focused violence an issue in our media, except in marginalized venues like this one at This Can’t Be Happening. That’s the real scandal.
Newsweek: A Rag For Our Time
Through a strange turn of fate, the November 12 issue of Newsweek magazine has turned out to be an especially telling example of the propaganda machine our national security state relies on. Edited by the great magazine wizard Tina Brown, the Veterans Day issue was titled “The Heroes Issue” and featured stories on a harrowing medevac rescue in Afghanistan; the story of a black mother who joins the Marines to serve her country; stories about an assortment of heroes from Hurricane Sandy; a profile of a maverick diplomat in Afghanistan, and finally a story how the selfless credo of the SEALs is being tempted by the seduction of Hollywood.
They’re all good stories — especially the Hollywood SEAL story — as far as they go, which is only to serve the codes of Patriotism and American Exceptionalism. There are advertisements for Jeep and Prius vehicles, Bank of America and Citibank, Omaha Streaks and Eli Lilly Pharmaceuticals and, on the back cover, naturally, a joint watch-fetish ad for Omega watches and the Bond film, Skyfall.
On the last page of the magazine, to the chagrin of Tina Brown and other editors at Newsweek, is a one-pager titled “Petraeus’s Rules for Living: Lessons on Leadership from General David Petraeus” — written by Paula Broadwell.
“If there is one factor that unites the American heroes we spotlight here,” writes editor Brown, “it is their adamant refusal to be portrayed as special.” (Newsweek, far from being heroic, is not so restrained or so humble.) The story of the truly brave medevac team is, in her words, “spine tingling.” “Awe,” she gushes, “is the only appropriate word to describe our response to the heroes here.”
The November 12 issue of Newsweek may not be the worst example of a propaganda rag, but it’s a good candidate to be a classic of the form, thanks to the extra frisson provided by the Paula Broadwell coda on Petraeus’ “Rules for Living.”
Here’s some wisdom from Rule #8: “If you rely on rank, rather than on the persuasiveness of your logic, the problem could be you.”
This is a rule worth pondering in the odiferous, rank-ridden corridors of Washington D.C. and Tampa. Also in the offices of Tina Brown and other corporate media moguls. If you consider the Myth of American Exceptionalism an extended example of “rank” in the world, when things go wrong allowing that “the problem could be you” is a good rule not to discard.