On 7/9/09, I attended a speech by General Petraeus at the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco. He is the CentCom Commander. The guy who introduced him was a former CentCom Commander. They traded jokes about the former grading Petraeus’s speech. I’ll grade it.

I described Petraeus as wooden in his TV appearances. That’s unacceptable because when you get to his level, TV is largely the way you relate to your troops. At West Point, we were trained primarily in small-unit leadership—command voice, span of control, how to lead calisthenics, etc. We also got training in making presentations and briefings. I recall no training in communicating via TV with your troops and other “stakeholders” like Congress and the public. They need to correct that.

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A reader of this article told me that,

New generals and admirals would be brought in [to a course on public relations] and given mock press conferences, speech classes, etc. in an effort to prepare them for high levels of public interaction.

This apparently is a standard course that has been required of all new admirals and generals for many years. It needs to be greatly improved. Furthermore, how well one performs on TV needs to be a criterion for promotion to those levels because TV is one of the main media through which admirals and generals lead.

In person, in front of a friendly audience—many of whom were generals in uniform—Petraeus is less wooden.

Standing O’s for Shinseki

Oddly, Former Army Chief of Staff and current VA head Eric Shinseki who played the same room at Marines Memorial a couple of weeks before Petraeus got multiple standing ovations. I remained seated, alone, because I am not impressed with Shinseki’s life (a Colin Powellesque, affirmative-action, inoffensive empty suit—he held two high appointive offices—a measure of ass-kissing skill) nor was I impressed with his speech [his infancy in a Japanese-American internment camp, organization chart of VA, plans for making it easier to get disability (That’s all we need. Most current applications for VA disability are probably fraudulent.), and reading excerpts from Congressional Medal of Honor citations].

No standing O for Petraeus

I was impressed by both in Petraeus’ case and would have joined a standing O but there was none. (Petraeus took career risks and showed moral courage and achieved superior results in Mosul as 101st Commander, and later as Iraq commander. He also held high appointive office, but it was not his only success. His Marines Memorial speech was generally excellent.)


Does my saying I would join a standing O for Petraeus mean I have changed my mind about his integrity lapses in promoting Stanley McChrystal to 4-star general and commander in Afghanistan?

Absolutely not. I discussed McChrystal in the following articles:

• General McChrystal’s new rules for Afghanistan
• The general who lied about Pat Tillman gets promoted to military’s highest rank and made head of Afghanistan
• Secretary of Defense Gates’ comments on military integrity and careerism
The Army tries to get away with yet another whitewash of Pat Tillman’s death
Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?
The 'U.S. military’s marathon, 30-year, single-elimination, suck-up tournament' OR 'How America selects its generals'
Lessons to be learned from Pat Tillman’s death
Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?

I also analyzed Petraeus previously in

General Petraeus’ report to Congress

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The policy of the U.S. Army on lying is that integrity is sine qua non to even being an officer, let alone for promotion. In fact, the military’s policy statement about its position on lying by officers is itself a brazen lie. At least some Army officers lie daily in virtually every unit of company size (about 120 people) or bigger—training schedules, motor vehicle maintenance reports, arms inventories, and so on. I do not mean to suggest the Navy, Marines, and Air Force are less prone to lying. I do not think they are much better if at all. But I was only in the Army. There are even phrases well known to the public, like “midnight requisition,” that reveal the routine nature of military dishonesty.

Superiors protect some liars who get caught, but not all

Sometimes, if an officer gets caught lying, like Nate Sassaman, a former West Point quarterback, he is abandoned by his superiors and allowed to “twist slowly, slowly in the wind,” to use a phrase from the Nixon administration. Other times, as when McChrystal was caught lying in the Pat Tillman cover-up (by 4-star General William Wallace’s official inquiry), his superiors protect and even promote him.

In his 7/9/09 speech, Petraeus praised McChrystal at length. Reduced to its essence, he admires McChrystal’s body-fat percentage, which he said was zero, and Petraeus is a long-term crony of McChrystal. Many have praised McChrystal’s special ops skills. Sounds like subjective “My crony is a great warrior” stuff to me. If there is hard evidence that McChrystal performed extraordinarily well in military operations—other than in PT tests—release it. Until you do, spare us.

I’ll give you some hard evidence he’s panicky bureaucrat. McChrystal was in the chain of command above Army Ranger Pat Tillman when another “elite” Army Ranger under his command shot Tillman in the forehead in broad daylight at close range. I reproduce his infamous cable to General Abizaid, then CentCom Commander warning Abizaid to warn President Bush not to praise Tillman’s bravery (http://www.johntreed.com/Tillman.html). In that cable, you can see a two-bit federal government bureaucrat shitting his pants over a public relations embarrassment. He babbles semi-incoherently in that message.

This guy is a “warrior!?” If he can’t keep his head, and his integrity if he still had any at the time of the Tillman incident, in a public-relations embarrassment, how do we figure he is a great leader in real combat where far more is at stake than his and his boss’s careers?

According to General Wallace, McChrystal lacks integrity. According to General Petraeus, McChrystal lacks body fat. Both are right. Wallace said McChrystal should be disciplined. Petraeus said McChrystal should be promoted.


My Succeeding book has a chapter about values. Contrary to popular opinion, everyone has the same values. Integrity is good. Career success is good. And so forth.

But the test is not whether you proclaim that you value integrity, as the Army loudly and frequently does. The true test is how you rank them in your personal values hierarchy because how you rank them decides which trumps when there is a conflict between them. Petraeus and the wider Army and administration faced such a conflict with McChrystal. If integrity was their higher value, they have to court martial McChrystal. If body fat and cronyism are higher values than integrity to Petraeus and the Army, they promote McChrystal

They promoted him. Actions speak louder than words.

To the Army and its generals like Petraeus and McChrystal and the others named in my Tillman articles, lying is OPUM: Officially Prohibited but Unofficially Mandatory. They deny that in public pronouncements. Those public pronouncements compound the original crime by adding another count of lying and a count of hypocrisy.

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West Point ain’t Podunk State

When graduates of Podunk State lie to advance their careers, it does not bother me much because Podunk State probably never promised much better. But Petraeus, McChrystal, et al are graduates of my alma mater: The United States Military Academy. West Point boasts of it Cadet Honor Code which said, in my day, “a cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal.” The motto of West Point is “Duty, Honor, Country” and those three words are engraved in the class rings that McChrystal was wearing when he signed the false Silver Star commendation on Tillman and that Petraeus was wearing when he signed the recommendation that McChrystal be made commander of Afghanistan.

I and Petraeus and McChrystal also had to memorize and recite the Cadet Prayer when we first entered West Point. It says in pertinent part:

Strengthen and increase our admiration for honest dealing and clean thinking, and suffer not our hatred of hypocrisy and pretence ever to diminish. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole truth can be won. Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy. Help us to maintain the honor of the Corps untarnished and unsullied and to show forth in our lives the ideals of West Point in doing our duty to Thee and to our Country.

In the cases of Petraeus and McChrystal, that Cadet Prayer was not answered.

Body fat versus integrity

The body-fat-percentage-versus-integrity values hierarchy issue reminds me of something I saw in Vietnam. Our battalion had about 100 deuce and a halfs (big truck that can carry a ton and a half of cargo). They were lined up absolutely perfectly in our motor pool. You literally could have but a pea on each where a hood ornament would be and shoot all of them off with one bullet. The Corp Commander, Julian J. Ewell, drove past our motor pool on his way to Long Binh USARV headquarters often. He never asked if the vehicles could be driven as far as I know.

Think about that. You could only accomplish that alignment if you literally surveyed them in with an NCO or officer sighting between two sights at either end of the line while large groups of men physically muscled the trucks forward and back to align them minutely, then put chocks under the wheels to prevent even the slightest subsequent movement. Furthermore, if you used the trucks on a daily basis, which was their purpose, you would have to go through that arduous routine every time you returned the truck to the line.

They were never moved because they were deadlined. That is, they were undrivable.

I was the battalion motor officer for about twelve hours. Why so short? The first morning, I was motor officer, the motor sergeant gave me a motor vehicle maintenance report to sign. It said 95% were in good working order and only 5% were deadlined. I said, “Really!? I always heard that 85% were deadlined.”

“They are, sir, but we can’t say that in the report.”

I refused to sign it because it was false. The sergeant went to see the battalion commander. He called and told me I was relieved as battalion motor officer. The next day I was sent to a more forward, more dangerous unit to show me and my fellow lieutenants what happens to those who refuse to “play the game.”

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The incident reflects not only the Army’s values hierarchy when it comes to integrity, it also is one of millions of examples that show the military favors form over substance—spit-and-polish incompetence. Look the part and talk a good game. The trucks of that combat battalion in a war zone were all show and no go, just like a four-star general who wears an “honor” ring while he lies, but has zero percent body fat.

Like Arnold

I recently saw a TV documentary that talked about Benedict Arnold. He was initially an American Revolutionaly War hero who captured Fort Ticonderoga and who was wounded in the Battle of Saratoga. Then he arranged to sell West Point, an important American Revolutionary War fort, to the British and went over to the British side.

When asked what they would do if they caught him after he began fighting against the Americans, Revolutionary War soldiers said they would first amputate the leg in which he was wounded and bury it with honors. Then they would hang the traitorous son of a bitch. Similarly, my standing ovation is for the moral courage and innovation Petraeus showed in his successful pursuit of more effective tactics in Iraq. As far as his promotion of McChrystal and continuing to send men and women to die in what appears to be a futile pair of wars are concerned, I would relieve him.

Begin with a joke

There is an unfortunate tradition in the U.S. of beginning a speech with a joke or two. Unfortunate because it assumes every speaker is a comedian. When it comes to comedy, Petraeus should keep his day job.

But he soldiered on through the obligatory jokes and got some laughs probably due to his celebrity and popularity with the audience more than the quality of his material or his delivery.

Speech writers

He is such a big shot now that he has speech writers. I know this because he mentioned it at least once in the talk. Unfortunately, he is apparently not yet a big enough big shot to have good speech writers. Or maybe he is, but is not competent enough to tell which of the people available to be his speech writers are the good ones.

A couple of tips: Like someone who can’t sing, you need to recognize that your problem is not total absence of talent but absence of range. So you and/or your speech writers need learn what few types of jokes you can deliver competently and only use that kind.

Don’t laugh at your own jokes unless you are Red Skelton. After you make a joke, wait until the laughter dies down before you resume speaking. For some reason, even Jay Leno has not yet figured that one out.

Local content

Secondly, you tried to make jokes with a local content. Good impulse, but lousy job on the material. The way you do it is to talk to the people who invited you to the talk—people like Mike Myatt, the president and CEO of the Club who attend all the meetings. George Schulz is a member and introduces big shots like Shinseki and Petraeus, but I have never seen him there at other functions. Talking to local, long-time residents of San Francisco would also work.

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Ask the local guys about humorous stuff that has happened recently that only a group like the audience would knew about. In San Francisco, maybe some reference to a recent screw-up by Mayor Gavin Newsom or a recent Willie Brown (former mayor) story. During our firstie trip when I was a cadet at West Point, we stopped at El Paso (for an introduction to the Air Defense Artillery branch which is based at Fort Bliss). One of our classmates had some salacious adventures there in Juarez. When we got to our last stop—Fort Monmouth—the commanding general, West Point grad Tom Rienzi, welcomed us to “the best fucking post in the Army” (he was embarrassed when I reminded him of that a while back) and made some wink-wink references to our classmate’s adventures in Juarez. It worked and endeared him to the audience. I have since used that trick myself on many occasions and it worked for me as well. Petraeus tried to do something like that, but it was apparently just lame stereotypes about San Francisco dreamed up by his Tampa, FL-based speech writers. It needs to be so local that only locals would understand and it has to be quite recent.

Self-deprecating humor

When you are a really big shot, it is useful to use self-deprecating humor. I attended a Henry Kissinger press conference once where he was asked an economic question. He prefaced his answer by saying his friend the late Bill Simon often commented that Kissinger’s knowledge of economics was an argument for ending universal suffrage.

Another recent speaker to the Marines Memorial, former CIA director R. James Woolsey began his talk by telling about his first commercial airline trip after he became CIA director. For his protection, he had to travel separate his wife who was going to the same Stanford reunion. He had used his miles to book the flight and had to pay a big penalty to cancel it. Furthermore, he could only sit in the last row against the bulkhead where he could not recline his seat. Furthermore, he had to have a middle seat so his huge body guards could sit on either side squishing him. The guards had to show their badges and guns to the pilots before the flight. They did not elaborate beyond that. The story culminated in a flight attendant telling one of the body guards that Woolsey was the best-behaved prisoner they ever had on the plane.

Petraeus tried a little self-deprecating stuff but he was less self-deprecating than he should have been. One of the knocks on him in the book the Gamble by Tom Ricks (another recent Marines Memorial speaker) is that Petraeus has a high opinion of himself. Perhaps that retards his ability to be sufficiently self-deprecating. Try harder. There’s plenty of material like your propensity to stand at a spot that got you shot by a basic trainee.

Power Point

Petraeus did a Power Point, which should normally be avoided, but it was probably necessary given the subject. However, I was surprised that he does not know to use very few words per slide. I used to make speeches as a large part of my living. I bought my own overhead projector and a book by the manufacturer 3M on how to use it. It recommended a very low limit on the number of words per slide. I forget the number. The basic idea was it had to be like a billboard or highway sign, not a shopping list or legal contract. Maybe no more than eight words and/or three bullet points—something like that. Petraeus violated that rule repeatedly. Like I said, I’m sure your mother is very proud that you have speech writers, now get some good ones. Good ones know how to design a Power Point presentation competently.

Question period

I give Petraeus 100% on his answers in the question period. Very impressive performance. He should reduce the set remarks percentage and increase the question period percentage. Go with your strength.

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Incompetent people tend to speak of things in broad, sweeping, general terms. I wrote about this elsewhere at this Web site like my article “A football coach analyzes U.S. military tactics and strategy.” The correct way to coach a team involves a zillion little details as well as broad strategy decisions. Petraeus spoke about both categories—details and geopolitical strategy—with astonishing fluency.

In general, Petraeus made an excellent presentation. He is surprisingly and unnecessarily amateurish in several ways as I described above. He can and should correct those problems.


Afghanistan is a narco state. It is now one of the top poppy growers in the world. Poppy plants are used to produce the drug heroin. Before we invaded, the Taliban had a strict policy against growing poppies, which they enforced. Since our invasion, the Taliban have changed policy 180 degrees. They now encourage poppy growing to get money to kill NATO and Pakistani forces.

Petraeus was asked if we are eradicating the poppy fields. He said we used to do that but it alienated the farmers so now we only go after the “kingpins.” He also welcomed a recent rise in wheat prices because it brought the amount of money the farmers could make growing wheat a little bit closer to the far greater amount they make growing poppies.


So we’re going to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan poppy farmers by letting them grow poppies but we are going to kill all the guys who buy the poppy crops from them? That makes perfect sense.

Dave, I think the farmers raise poppies to get the money, not because they like poppies. Whether you stop them from getting the money by destroying the poppies in the fields or destroying the wholesalers who buy the crops makes no difference.

American values

And what about all the speeches our Naif in Chief has made about us forgetting American values by using torture to win the War on Terror, excuse me, Overseas Contingency Operations? Is protecting or ignoring the activities of heroin growers consistent with our values? Was I supposed to encourage my three sons to join the military and go to Afghanistan and risk their lives to win the hearts and minds of drug dealers and prop up a government that refuses to stop drug dealing?

Will our troops start using the heroin

Then there is the risk that our troops will become heroin users. That was a serious problem with our troops in Vietnam toward the end of the war, and Vietnam did not even grow poppies. The Army’s current slogan is, “You made them strong. We’ll make them Army strong.” Putting your sons and daughters in one of the top heroin producing countries in the world, right next to poppy fields, has a good chance of making your son or daughter a heroin addict. The fact that so many U.S. troops became drug addicts in Vietnam is why even those who did not left Vietnam tours off their resumes for years after the war.

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Here are some pertinent statements from the excellent book Stolen Valor:

Any drug you wanted to buy in Vietnam—marijuana, heroin, opium—was cheap and available. Kids sold joints on the side of the road for fifty cents apiece. Typically, we junior officers staged a surprise inspection once a month. Nearer the combat zones, there was less oversight, fewer inspections, and more ability to hide drugs.

Are Americans or their military personnel supposed to be proud of what we are doing there? And how does that work if what we are doing there is facilitating or acquiescing to heroin dealing? Where is the outrage about heroin? Many seem quite outraged about waterboarding or Abu Ghraib or consideration of a plan to kill Al Qaeda leaders—but we have no problem spending a trillion dollar and thousands of lives for a narco state? Obama criticized Bush for not having a “coherent” foreign policy. Waging a War on Drugs and simultaneously waging an Overseas Contingency Operation where we ignore the same drugs is coherent?

I have no use for Code Pink and other anti-war airheads, but when it comes to Afghan poppy fields, I like one of the anti-war slogans:

Not in my name.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are starting to remind me of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. We are there are trying to kill bad guys there as fast as we can, and they are trying to kill us as fast as they can, but both sides forgot the original reasons for the wars—partly beause we keep changing our justification for being there—WMD, 9/11, preventing chaos, preventing Iranian influence, stopping the Taliban from throwing acid on girls. What exactly is the horrible thing that would happen if we just left and is that actually worse than all these Americans dying? In our present national financial situation, can we even afford to do this financially?

Big picture

He addressed, but did not face the big picture squarely enough or adequately.

As stated by Tom Ricks at the end of The Gamble, what’s probably going to happen is that we will eventually tire of Iraq and Afghanistan, and/or go bankrupt and have to leave whether we are tired on not. And after we do, the countries will revert more or less to their historical patterns. We may have a Shiite dictator in Iraq instead of a Sunni one like Saddam Hussein, but it will not be a “Jeffersonian democracy” to cite an attempt at humor and expectations-lowering that I do not care for by Petraeus. At the Marines Memorial, he put down the likely end result as “Iraqracy’ [pause—laughter from the audience] rather than true democracy.

Very funny, Dave. And please tell us again how many U.S. military personnel died on your watch to make Iraq safe for a “non-Jeffersonian democracy” or an “Iraqracy?” I wonder how many of the dead would have volunteered for the mission knowing that all it might end up accomplishing were these Petraeus put-down versions of a peaceful democracy.

My father and the other 12 million World War II vets did not risk, or lose, their lives for anything less than the Jeffersonian democracies that have since existed in Germany and Japan. I am aware that establishing such governments in cultures like Iraq and Afghanistan may be far more difficult than it was in Germany and Japan, but that’s an argument for not starting down that bloody road to begin with. Not an excuse for failure and wasting 6,000 lives. When the day came that Petraeus realized the goal could not be achieved, he should have told the president to pull the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and resigned in protest if he did not. Instead, he soldiered on or careered on. But the dead in Iraq and Afghanistan are just as dead as the dead in Europe and the Pacific in World War II.

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‘Results problem’

My favorite part of Petraeus’s speech was when he said a visitor to Iraq told him he had a “message problem.” “No,” Petraeus told him, “I have a results problem. We’re not producing good enough results.” Well said. I wrote a whole article about that. But phrases like “Jeffersonian democracy” and “Iraqracy” are attempts to excuse lack of results through message spin.

I like results orientation. I also like calling a spade a spade and saying this is too hard given the limited resources and patience of the American people. I do NOT like the apparent fact that Petraeus has figured out the latter, but is willing to let Americans continue to die there rather than call a spade a spade and risk ending his hot-as-a-pistol military career at its peak.

The West Point motto engraved on Petraeus’ class ring, “Duty honor country,” does not mean just following orders, however unwise. Sometimes it means not sinning by silence when you should protest. We went all the way through 58,000 lives in Vietnam, a futile war in which Petraeus did not serve, without any high-ranking West Pointer protesting it from a moral standpoint. I’m not talking about war-versus-peace morality. I’m talking about saving-your-troops-from-dying-in-vain morality. Military officers have two priorities: accomplish the mission and take care of the welfare of their troops. We accomplished neither in Vietnam. Those who blame our civilian superiors for Vietnam need to explain why they did not raise hell and resign in protest.

Answers like “That’s above my pay grade” or “That’ll be up to the Iraqis and Afghans” do not suffice. Petraeus had plenty of government-paid education at West Point and Princeton, and he has had more opportunity than anyone else, including those who outrank him, to analyze the situation and forecast the likely outcome. As such, he has a responsibility to do everything he can to stop the war if he believes it is not worth the cost in blood and treasure and loss of world respect for the U.S. As for “it’s up to the Iraqis and Afghans,” they have the authority to determine the future of their country. They do not have the authority to decide whether thousands of American lives will be wasted in a futile attempt to get the locals to behave responsibly. That’s Petraeus’ job.