Kevin Cullen

Scandal highlights the strains of modern war

And so, just in time for Veterans Day, one of the nation’s most distinguished and decorated veterans of the Army is shown to have feet of clay.

The humiliation of retired General David Petraeus has just begun. So, too, have the conspiracy theories. It seems awfully suspicious and perhaps convenient that CIA director Petraeus exits, stage left, just before he was supposed to testify this week before a congressional committee probing the killings in Libya of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other men, including Glen Doherty, a former Navy SEAL from Winchester.

Coming so soon after the election, the Petraeus scandal will fuel all sorts of claims that it was timed to protect President Obama’s campaign, to prevent the truth in Benghazi from emerging, to divert attention from any number of issues, partisan and kooky and whatever.


Still, when you get right down to it, this is a sex scandal, and it will be treated as such, because, well, that’s easy and sex sells.

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But the ruin of David Petraeus can be seen through another lens, even though it probably won’t be. And that is as a wider, cautionary tale about the demands we have put on our modern military after a decade of perpetual war and multiple deployments.

Now it is certainly true that Petraeus’s affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, a West Point and Harvard graduate, could have happened stateside, in peace time. Indeed, Broadwell has suggested they first met in Cambridge when she was getting her graduate degree at Harvard. But that isn’t where the relationship blossomed. Appearing on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart last January, Broadwell hinted at how close she and Petraeus became as they went running together in Afghanistan when she visited him there to work on the book. Type A’s apparently attract. Broadwell, a triathlete, explained that she actually taped interviews with Petraeus as the pair ran together in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

“For him,” Broadwell told Stewart, “I think it was a good distraction from the war.”

Distraction was an interesting way to put it. That got me thinking about another story about Kabul that another general, Jack Hammond, told me just a couple of weeks ago. Hammond’s last deployment, before he retired after 30 years in the Army, was in Kabul. During that tour, eight marriages, representing about a quarter of the married members of the brigade level headquarters, ended in the thin mountain air of Kabul.


All of those marriages, Hammond said, had suffered from a cumulative effect. In the previous decade, everybody had been away from home in time that was measured in years, not months.

“We haven’t even begun to calculate the damage to family life” caused by so many deployments over so little time, said Hammond, who runs Home Base, the Massachusetts General Hospital program that treats the invisible wounds of war, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

Beyond the brain injury caused by improvised explosive devices there is TMI, traumatic marriage injury, caused by wars whose burdens have been borne by so few Americans.

Petraeus’s wife, Holly, would have known something about the strains put on military families long before she found herself in the middle of all this. She testified before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs last year.

“I come from a military family,” she said at that time, “one that has a tradition of service going back to the Revolutionary War.” Her father, who served as the superintendent at West Point, fought in World War II and Vietnam. Her brothers served in Vietnam. Her son Stephen joined the Army right out of MIT in 2009 and served in Afghanistan with the 173d Airborne. David Petraeus commissioned their son during a ceremony at MIT’s Cambridge campus, just down Massachusetts Avenue from where David Petraeus first met his mistress the year before.


Holly Petraeus is widely admired for her work in helping military families navigate the financial minefields that come from serving the country while making short money. Last year, she visited an airbase in Texas and remarked — poignantly, in hindsight — that it seemed like her husband was always gone.

Many military families considered the Petraeusus a model couple, a reassuring example of a marriage that could survive long periods of separation and the worry of war, that you can raise good kids and have a good marriage despite the demands of constant deployments. David Petraeus was hardly a year into civilian life before the FBI discovered his affair with Broadwell, herself an Army veteran and current reserve lieutenant colonel. But it seems undeniable that Petraeus’s undoing was sealed in a war zone, and that he and others, commanders and grunts, have been asked to sacrifice too much of their personal lives since the fall of the Twin Towers.

On this Veterans Day, it would be a good thing if most Americans would look at what happened to David and Holly Petraeus and ask, “Are we asking too much of our military families?”

But that is probably asking too much.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.