Back in 1996, I was a starry-eyed West Point lieutenant in the storied 82nd Airborne Division. I had just graduated from Ranger School and the 2nd Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment was my new home—my first assignment. I loved the Army...
The author writing out an operations order during the reign of David the Terrible.
Over the weekend, the media went into a feeding frenzy over the big, juicy, red-meat news that David Petraeus, the former head of the CIA and onetime adored four-star general, had been banging his fawning biographer, Paula Broadwell. If you’ve been following this somewhat-less-than-Shakespearean tragedy, you’ll know by now they were getting it on under his desk—that giant oaken hunk of power that no doubt displayed a miniature American flag and framed photos of his family. When I read about this, I imagined those photos jumping around on top of the desk while the great conqueror of Iraq invaded that obsequious writer babe down below.
Petraeus is the West Point general who wrote the book, literally, on counter-insurgency. For years, when all was doom and gloom in Iraq, he was America’s top warrior—a flag-saluting, straight-shooting strategic genius who always had time for the media; C-SPAN’s heroic general. Everybody loved this guy—especially the liver-spotted silver heads in Congress. Whenever Petraeus testified in the halls of power, they all showed up to pump his fist and spew superlatives. Someday, they said, Petraeus would be included in the prestigious pantheon of West Point military gods: Grant, MacArthur, Patton, and Eisenhower.
But now that’s all out the window. Now, he’s just another big man who fucked around and got caught. He’s in the process of being disgraced. His friends are turning their backs. At least one reporter who used to belong to King David’s “cult,” Spencer Ackerman, has publicly disowned him. The salacious details about his under-the-desk romps will probably continue to be splashed all over tabloid pages for months like the chief spook’s warm jizz.
The man’s career is unraveling by the minute, and I’m enjoying every second of it.
I’ve detested Petraeus for a long, long time. I’ve tried writing about him for a decade, but nobody seemed to listen. He was bulletproof back then—not so anymore. Now’s the time for me to tell you all about this self-serving shithead and what it was like being his bitch for years.
Back in 1996, I was a starry-eyed West Point lieutenant in the storied 82nd Airborne Division. I had just graduated from Ranger School and the 2nd Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment was my new home—my first assignment. I loved the Army back then.
When I showed up for duty, our brigade commander was a reasonable guy named John Abazaid. Morale was decent under him, because each battalion in the brigade was pretty much left alone. Colonel Abazaid let us solve our own problems. We were all competent adults and his laid-back, hands-off leadership style made us feel important and trusted.
But after a few months, Abazaid left and in came “Mr. Burns.”
Mr. Burns was our nickname for Petraeus, who was only a colonel back then. We called him that, in case it’s not obvious, because he looked and acted like the wiry, hand-rubbing villain in The Simpsons.
After Petraeus showed up, my life and the life of every soldier under his command went to complete shit. Back then, the ever-calculating Petraeus, who had married the West Point superintendent’s daughter after graduating, was on his way up. The general’s star was within reach—he was only one rank away—and being in command of the “Devil Brigade” (our brigade), was absolutely vital to getting him there. During his tenure with the 504th, he had to kiss and lick as many hairy, hemorrhoidal assholes as possible. He had to guffaw and slap all the right backs; he had to seriously impress. He had to do whatever was necessary to reach the pinnacle. No bridge too far for that son of a bitch. Can do. Will do. Yes sir, whatever you want, sir.
What did that mean to us servile dopes under his command? Well, first he mandated that each and every officer in the brigade get what he called a “Devil Haircut,” which was a “high-and-tight”—pretty much a shaved head with a weed-like tuft of hair left to its own devices at the top of the cranium. We all looked like Beaker from the Muppets. He then made all of us, every member of the brigade, walk around with our hands firmly on our AR-15s. Normally, when we carried our weapons, we kept one finger, the trigger finger, at the ready next to the trigger mechanism in the event we had to quickly engage the enemy, but that wouldn’t fly under Petraeus, who introduced the “Devil Grip,” since apparently everything with him had to involve the fucking devil. Essentially, this just meant keeping your trigger finger out of the trigger well. If he showed up and saw anyone under your command without the Devil Grip, you were fucked. You got a dressing down and a bad performance review. You got Mr. Burns’s spittle in your face.
The genesis behind the Devil Grip came from the time when Dave was micromanaging a live-fire exercise in a trench. He got behind a soldier he was watching and another soldier behind him accidentally tripped, shooting the old bird in the back with an M-16. He blamed the accident on the kid’s lack of “Devil Grip,” but there are rumors about what really happened. The kid probably hated him (as most people who served under him did) and saw his golden chance to get even with a good and decent “frag”—a term coined in Vietnam for shooting a shitty officer who usually deserves to be shot.
Petraeus was just that kind of inspiring leader.
But the misery inflicted upon us by Petraeus didn’t end with a hideous haircut and an absurd grip. Since we were the asphalt that paved his road to glory, we had to do other silly things. We had to go over to his house during the holidays and make nice with his wife, Holly. We had to eat her cookies and sip her tea while we exchanged bullshit pleasantries, calling her “ma’am” and always being mindful of our language. We had to compliment her cooking and smile with our whitened teeth. We had to don our dress blues and sing Christmas carols. We always made nice—and this was on our supposedly free time. We quickly learned that in order to make it in Uncle Sam’s Army, we had to be grade-A bullshitters.
And when we weren’t doing that, we were off “training.” Petraeus could never say no to a superior, so we performed like trained monkeys for anyone who asked. We displayed our ferocious warrior spirit to the ambassadors of Brazil, Belize, and Bangladesh. We jumped out of planes and landed on hard tarmac in some yokel swath of Mississippi for Senator Trent Lott. And we liberated a fake village from fake South American dictators for Senator Strom Thurmond.
Petraeus gave the author some dumb award for some deed he doesn't remember.
I’ll never forget that last experience, because it probably helped get Petraeus his coveted star. One day, I drew the short straw: My platoon got picked to demonstrate the capabilities of the XVIII Airborne Corps. Petraeus signed us up to depict how flawlessly America’s best warriors executed “military operations in urban terrain.” We were putting on a show for Thurmond, that old womanizing curmudgeon, that supreme racist KKK Dixiecrat centenarian—we had to make pretty for him of all people. He represented the people of South Car’lina and he was then the chairman of the all-powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, meaning he had his hands on the billion-dollar purse strings. This made him vital to David Petraeus, rising star.
We spent 24-hour days getting ready for this circus. We had to pick the best-looking sergeants (seriously); we had to polish our equipment to make it look like Hollywood props in the hands of John Wayne and Audie Murphy. We had to perform for Petraeus over and over and over again in preparation for Massah Thurmond. Our men had to make crisp, robotic movements; they entered and cleared rooms with their AR-15s drawn, Devil Grips at the ready. The enemy (then a bumbling ragtag collection of incompetent insurgents wearing battle-dress uniforms inside-out) died instantly, making demise-of-bad-guy melodramatic moans. At the end, a black helicopter—the XVIII Airborne Corps’ deus ex machina—descended and evacuated our poor casualties, proving to the taxpayers that, like in the movie Black Hawk Down, we will never, ever, leave a brave soldier behind. We practiced—boy did we practice. We were fed lines and learned them by rote. We moved left, right, left. We said, “Room One clear!” We fired two rounds: Boom! Boom! We kicked doors open with our polished boots. We dispatched the drug-dealing bastards and left them writhing and dying, because bad guys need to suffer. Then we radioed HQ and gave a thumb’s up that we had won.
Hooray for America!
We did it at night, too. Then we did it again during the day, with Petraeus looking on.
He said we were good, but we had to look better, and so Devil Six—his radio call sign—ordered the mechanics in our motor pool to fire up a large, four-wheeled, eight-kilowatt generator so we could power the multicolored Christmas lights we strung around the scrub-strewn field at Fort Bragg where our performance would take place. We also installed a 36-inch television and a VCR to tape our shenanigans. Petraeus then called for bleachers to be installed. The only thing missing was a juggling patriot clown astride a unicycle. All of this jumping through hoops for Devil Six’s all-important career.
Appearances became even more important as the day of the performance approached. We had to press and starch our uniforms. We had to shave twice. Our cap bills were folded into perfect parabolas using water and a small drinking glass. Our Kevlar helmet liners were ironed. Dust and wayward hairs were lifted off our battle dress uniforms using Scotch tape. All of our equipment had to be black and shiny. The token casualties had to lie still. Any visible hands had to be knife-edge straight. The latrine’s seat looked like the polished treasure of the Sierra Madre. The walkway to the theater had to be free of all weeds and rocks larger than three-quarters of an inch in diameter. No living thing was allowed to crawl or grow in the path of that feeble Armed Services Chairman.
Someone accidentally called this thing a circus within earshot of Petraeus. That man was frog-marched into a Humvee on a one-way trip back to base. No sarcasm allowed—yes-men only, please. This circus show demanded obsequiousness and good manners.
When Thurmond eventually arrived, his aides clad in khakis and blue blazers escorted him around. These were the guys who made the real decisions. Thurmond had palsy and so he shook like an epileptic prop in a revival tent. Because he could barely walk, his handlers sat him on a motorized Rascal. (We had to clean the wheelchair well in advance with a concoction of Simple Green and Windex; we even spray-painted it olive drab.)
When Thurmond got wheeled into his observation post, Petraeus radioed my company commander, who then radioed me. I radioed the Adonis-looking sergeant, who then radioed the square-jawed corporal who kicked off the whole affair. The robots moved about the range. The pretend South American insurgents with dastardly-looking, Snidely Whiplash-esque mustaches were killed. The casualties kept quiet. Helicopters hovered and descended. All was good; all was made safe in the end.
Senator Thurmond clapped and slapped Petraeus’s back.
“Them boys look good,” he said approvingly. A long trail of white spit emerged from between his lips. “What a fine group of soldiers!”
“Yes sir,” Petraeus replied, beaming. “Yes sir, they sure are.”
“I like it,” Thurmond said, nodding. He then motioned to his aide who wrote down something.
Petraeus had been made that day. From that point on, he was going to be a general.
They wheeled Thurmond into a special van. It turned around and drove off down the road. We stood at attention and saluted until it disappeared from view.
My company commander then turned to me. “Cut the generator,” he ordered.
The Christmas lights went out, flashlight arcs appeared, my men shouted as they started cleaning up the range.
When we were done, we went home to our ramshackle base houses and kissed our wives.
Then we got up and did it again. We did these things for years, all for Petraeus.
A few months before he left, Devil Six showed up unannounced to supervise one of my unit’s workouts. By that time, I had grown my hair long and put some meat on my bones. I was on my way out—I had had enough and was thoroughly disillusioned with the military. I was going to resign my commission, while Petraeus was on his crazy meteoric rise to the top. We were traveling at equal speeds in opposite directions. He caught me faking my pushups and called me over to have a chat.
“What’s your name, soldier?” he asked.
I stood at attention. “Larkin, sir.”
“What’s your rank?”
“You’re an officer?”
“Captain Larkin, you should be ashamed of yourself for faking pushups.”
He shook his head and stood there for a second. Our eyes met.
“You’re not setting an example for your men.”
“You’re disgracing yourself, Captain Larkin. You know that, right?”
“You need a haircut, and you look like you need to get weighed in.”
He mumbled something to his adjutant and walked off. I saluted him. That’s the last time I saw Petraeus.
Now, nearly 20 years later, I’m picturing the old warrior with his uniformed pants down to his knees. He’s under his desk thrashing about. He’s thrusting his hips into the groin of his fawning biographer.
He’s the fucking disgrace.