Reuters/Larry Downing

Unless General Petraeus packs a particularly formidable pistol in his pocket, it is unlikely that Paula Broadwell was shocked when the two consummated their affair. But clearly she was awed. Like a schoolgirl in a swoon, she longed to tell. She became her love object’s biographer and called the book All In. At every opportunity she advertised her “unprecedented access,” her position “by his side,” their jogs, their playful jousts, his “mentorship,” her ability to keep up, in the Hindu Kush, “embedded,” the buttons on her fitted blouse straining to contain her bosom, the sandbags of ambition and ideology inhibiting any realistic assessment of the general or the wars he directed. As Jon Stewart quipped about her book, “The real controversy here is, Is he awesome or incredibly awesome?” And, by association, Is she awesome or incredibly awesome?—a question she aimed to answer by doing sixty push-ups in formal wear. 

Now that it’s come undone, the affair emblemizes the wartime culture that made, and unmade, them both: the hubris, the indifference to reality, the social rot and inevitable failure. In retrospect, it all seems so obvious. Of course they had an affair… like, of course Colin Powell lied about Saddam’s WMDs; of course bombing creates enemies; of course people hate their occupiers; of course the earth is scorched, children die, soldiers are broken, the war is lost. In farce as in tragedy, the end is in the beginning, but who was there who might have refused to suspend disbelief? 

Not the general’s subordinates, who did think Broadwell’s propinquity a little odd. Not Broadwell’s writing partner, The Washington Post’s Vernon Loeb, so narcotized churning her dispatches into chapters he sensed nothing. Not the journalists whose familiarity with embedding inoculated the word from innuendo and whose obsession with access makes the “in” a mark not of the sycophant but of the star. Not the elite media claque whom Petraeus “mesmerized” (David Ignatius) or “made…feel special” (Erin Burnett) or won with his “Boy Scout’s charm” (Alissa Rubin and Dexter Filkins). Not the legions of fawners who proclaimed he has “the heart of a lion” (Gen. Barry McCaffrey), the mien of “a brainy ascetic” (The New York Times) and a gift so great that “almost everything he touches seems to turn to gold” (ABC).

All were so busy sucking up in the proverbial sense that none imagined that a star general might want the real thing, and could have it, from a homecoming queen and West Point grad as hungry to get ahead as he, and even more risk-centric. “I like to jump out of airplanes, ski in avalanche territory, and have even interviewed ‘terrorists,’ ” Broadwell puffed to the girlfriend networking maven and blogger Claudia Chan this summer, round about the time she was sending hissy e-mails to MacDill AFB’s “volunteer social liaison,” Jill Kelley. It is hard to resist the daytime drama, with loud twins, the weird, shirtless FBI agent friend and another general, tripped up on his way to becoming Supreme Allied Commander of NATO by 20,000 pages of flirty e-mails to Kelley. 

“I look at the world as a series of webs to be connected,” Broadwell had told Chan. “The more one can play the connector…the more valuable you make yourself to each of the networks that want to be connected.” She described herself as “pathologically helpful,” patching together a worldview owing in part to Malcolm Gladwell, in part to Oprah and in large part to David Petraeus. It could not but lend itself to B-grade showbiz.

Broadwell didn’t anticipate the true value of her “connector” role. Rarely does a sex scandal rip the veil from an entire world. Usually it is compartmentalized: the soldier who rapes another soldier; who takes up with the captain’s wife and plots to kill him; who forces prisoners to masturbate, all “isolated incidents” however much they blare a pattern. While the Petraeus legend unraveled, the former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, sat in a Fort Bragg courtroom for hearings to determine if he will face trial for forcible sodomy, wrongful sexual conduct and adultery with five women. One of them, a captain, testified to a three-year affair that soured when the general had another dalliance, shoved his penis into her mouth at work after she complained, and threatened to kill her and her family if she told anyone. No one talks much about General Sinclair.

There can be no branding Petraeus a bad apple. He had an ordinary affair so far as we know, and actually was one of the better generals in Iraq, a contrast winner because he thought it unwise to punish rank-and-file Baathists and argued that it’s better to protect civilians than to kill them. For that the press and political class called him brilliant. The characterization held even after he went to Centcom and Afghanistan and decided it was better to call in death from the sky and secure fiefdoms for racketeers loathed and feared by the population, all the while touting progress. 

Petraeus doesn’t look so smart or successful now; neither does his successor, Jill Kelley’s BFF, General Allen, nor the stenographers picking at the bones of reputations they helped build. About 25,000 Taliban still thwart 104,900 coalition troops, having gained ground they didn’t hold while in power. Even Republicans are saying maybe it’s time to pull out; the thrill is gone. 

Seduction was as central as fear to the sales job for America’s twenty-first-century wars. Our troops would be in and out. They would be heroes for a people with short or no memories. All cried, “Support Our Troops!” but things went to hell anyway. Petraeus took the national stage in 2006, one last chance for glory. If they even knew, few cared that he’d been calculating his rise from the time he graduated West Point and married the academy superintendent’s daughter. If any had even heard of Broadwell, her striving would similarly have earned a shrug. David and Paula were American dreamers, but their network, interlocked with Jill, her twin and their suburban posse, turns out to be a dystopian throwback, a kind of Military Mad Men, where the men are reckless and regard any woman with big tits and a nice smile as a genius, where the women are auxiliaries or schemers, dispensing tips about thank-you cards and how to make it in “a man’s world”; where everyone is incompetent. Military strategists and GIs have been complaining for years about a failure in generalship and a culture that rewards kowtowing. The scandal bright-lines their arguments. Most people don’t know how to plan a battle or collect international intelligence; they do know a few things about how to conduct a decent affair. If the director of the CIA and a Reserve intelligence officer can’t even do that, what good are the institutions that groomed them?

That’s the bright side. Still, it is a shame that Petraeus and Broadwell have given adultery a bad name.

JoAnn Wypijewski reported from the Republican National Convention for our October 1 issue, in “No Place Like Home.”