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How Good Was General Petraeus?

By Dexter Filkins, The New Yorker - December 10, 2012

In the Roman conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar led his legions into battle wearing a flowing red cape. The cape made him more likely to be killed but easier for his men to see; it served as a reminder of his fearlessness. John Bell Hood, one of the Confederacy’s most audacious commanders, had his left arm shattered at Gettysburg, and lost his right leg at Chickamauga; from then on, he rode into battle tied to his horse. Even in the Second World War, when senior officers had it easier than their predecessors, General Dwight Eisenhower was so consumed by the job that he smoked four packs of cigarettes and drank fifteen cups of coffee a day.

Nowadays, most general officers, at least most American ones, do not see combat. They don’t fire their weapons, and they don’t get killed; for the most part, they don’t even smoke. In wars without front lines, American generals tend to stay inside fortified bases, where they plan missions and brief political leaders via secure video teleconferences. Their credentials are measured as much by their graduate degrees as by the medals on their dress uniforms. They are, for the most part, deeply conventional men, who rose to the top of the military hierarchy by following orders and suppressing subversive thoughts.

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