A recent article in the New York Times about how General (Ret.) David Petraeus is being honored by the New York Historical Society featured a word often used to describe Petraeus as well as another retired U.S. general fallen on hard times, Stanley McChrystal. The word is “ascetic.” The American media loved to hype the ascetic nature of both these men: their leanness, the number of miles they ran or push-ups they did, how hard they worked, how few hours of sleep they required, and so on. Somehow “ascetic” became associated with superlative leadership and sweeping strategic vision, as if eating sparse meals or running ten miles in an hour is the stuff of a winning general.
Of prospective generals Napoleon used to ask, “Is he lucky?” In other words, does he find ways to win in spite of the odds? It seems our media identifies a winning general by how many chin-ups and sit-ups he can perform, or how few calories he needs in a day.
The whole ascetic ideal is not a citizen-soldier concept. It’s a Spartan or Prussian conceit. And it’s fascinating to me how generals like Petraeus and McChrystal were essentially anointed as ascetic warrior-priests by the U.S. media. So much so that in 2007 the Bush Administration took to hiding behind the beribboned and apparently besmirchless chest of Petraeus.
Of course, both Petraeus and McChrystal bought their own media hype, each imploding in his own way, but both manifesting a lack of discipline that gave the lie to the highly disciplined “ascetic” image of the warrior-priest.
And of course both are now being rehabilitated by the powers-that-be, a process that says much about our imperial moment.
Something tells me we’d be better off with a few plain-speaking, un-hyped, citizen-soldier types like Ulysses S. Grant rather than the over-hyped “ascetic warriors” of today. Or as a friend of mine put it, “I’d prefer a little fat at the gut to lots of fat above the ears.”