Magazine article The New Yorker

Military Secrets

Magazine article The New Yorker

Military Secrets

Article excerpt

As the baffling and then burlesque and then baroquely burlesque affair enveloping General Petraeus and his friends, of both sexes, fell upon us like another hurricane last week, it seemed to confirm once again Philip Roth's fifty-year-old assertion that you can't write good satirical fiction in America because reality will quickly outdo anything you might invent. The Petraeus story rapidly expanded, novella-like, into a kind of "Fifty Shades of Khaki." First came the news that the hero of the surge had been surging with his biographer, a woman who, as a quick scan of her book-tour appearances suggests, was not only fabulously appealing but also more or less openly italicizing her attachment to the General. Then it came out that she had been sending notes to another female admirer of the General, which were threatening or, perhaps, merely catty. Then it came out that an F.B.I. agent who admired the second admirer, to whom he had sent a photo of himself shirtless, which may have been meant to entice or may have been entirely wholesome, had sprung to her defense by launching an investigation into the affair, which he leaked to Republican congressmen. Then it came out that a second general, in Afghanistan, had been corresponding with camp follower No. 2 in a way that some people said was "flirtatious." The national-security establishment suddenly seemed like "Couples" with epaulettes.

The Fox News right, still recuperating from its electoral setbacks of the previous week, tried frantically to connect some part of this roundelay to what had happened at the American consulate in Benghazi, in September, but nothing stuck. Benghazi is a tragedy in search of a scandal; the Petraeus affair is a scandal in search of a tragedy. It is proof only that what Roth called the human stain spreads, and sooner or later stains us all. Any bit of schadenfreude it might provoke rises only from the way in which the by now too automatic American soldier worship--which is not always shared by actual soldiers--had, for once, to pause in the midst of its moralizing. There was something truly entertaining about seeing the usual officer-lauding pundits reaching a finger for stop A on the organ of indignation (the moral collapse of everything, owing to the promiscuity of everybody) and then, while longing to land on the usual stop B (the moral superiority of the men of the military and national-security services) having to pause, trembling, in midair. …

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