I post this today because, in light of yesterday’s news. [EDITED MONTHS LATER TO ADD: yesterday was a while ago, so to remind you: Petraeus got busted for having sex with a married lady--hold on, it gets worse-- who was not the lady that he was actually married to.]
Without further ado, here’s the piece.
The Lion of CENTCOM
I woke with a start. I threw off the poncho I’d been using as both tent and blanket and dove for the Kalishnikov I’d pinched off the corpse of a Taliban fighter two days earlier…
…off a boy who couldn’t have been older than 14…
I struggled with the stock and cursed harshly, betraying both position and ethnicity with one foolishly hissed, Motherfucker!—a mistake only a journalist would have made.
My fingers trembled. My heart beat so fast my ribs ached. My pee wanted out. Pressed hard against the small mound I’d been using to block the January wind, I scanned the area frantically for the source of the noise—hard, fast breathing; the sound of a man exerting himself at his outermost limit.
I could see nothing—nothing save the terrible vision at the fore of my imagination of one of my countrymen in a hand-to-hand deathstruggle with an unlettered fanatic.
Somewhere in the darkness, Corporal Gaines muttered, “Relax. It’s just Petraeus.”
Shit… I should have known.
My breath slowly returned. I sat back on my heels and laughed, thinking, Yep, it’s just Dave.
There he was, the man who wrested order from chaos in Iraq, now on a mountainside in Afghanistan belting out 300-some push ups at… what time was it?... I checked my watch: 0230h. General David Petraeus, the brilliant, half-insane CENTCOM commander, graduate of West Point, Georgetown, and Princeton, author of “The Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual,” Rolling Stones session guitarist (Some Girls, Steel Wheels), James Beard Award winner, champion bass fisherman, street-basketball legend, et cetera, et alia, et bagus chiporum, once again unable to sleep without proving his mettle in some small way.
His exercises complete, he sat in a half-lotus atop a pyramidical boulder about 20 yards from the site where he, I, and a small contingent of Green Berets had bivouacked for the night. (The half-lotus is his preferred at-rest position. It’s the pose he takes when he testifies before Congress, though a table drape hides this fact from the cameras.) His body, mimicking the shape of the rock upon which he sat, seemed in the gloom like the crown to a small totem pole. He looked across the valley in the direction of the ancient village we would raid tomorrow. It sat four clicks away and lurked in the darkness like a threat. Dave, in effect, looked off to where, if we called the Taliban “Charlie,” Charlie lurked. He was peering into the vast sea where the Charlie swam like a fish.
I walked over to Dave’s perch and stood behind him. I followed his gaze to the village and, like he did, stared. Neither of us spoke for several minutes.
“A few days ago you quoted Judge Holden,” Petreaus finally said without turning. I smiled, imagining that he had identified me by the frequency of my bootcrunch. Or, perhaps, his physical skills being so varied and extraordinary, by my musk. Neither would have surprised me. More likely, he had heard my cowardly swear and knew that I, too agitated for sleep, desired company.
“The judge,” he said, staring across the valley, speaking of the anti-hero of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, “Is a sociopath. He fights merely to fight, kills merely to kill, treats war like a game with no real purpose beyond the exercise itself.”
I looked up at the sky. No cloud, cityglare, nor moonlight contended with the stars. They shone down with an abundance and clarity I’d never seen in 34 years of urban life. If their arrangement portended good or ill for us, I was not the man to decipher the message. I am as ignorant of the constellations as the average al-Qaeda fighter is of print.
“The judge’s warcraft,” Petraeus continued, “Is argument without opinion, punishment without cause, camaraderie without loyalty, vengeance without honor, and leadership without direction. The judge is not a warrior. He is a sociopath. I do not fear the sociopath.”
He was quiet for a time. I knew better by then than to prod him. Interviewing General Petraeus requires patience above all else. I had quoted Judge Holden (“It does not matter what men think of war. One may as well ask man what he thinks of stone,”) not a few days earlier, but a few months. That’s just Dave being Dave, man. You move at his pace, or he will retreat into himself like the insurgent retreats into the populace.
“I do not fear the sociopath,” he repeated, but with an energy that belied the stillness of his half-lotus. “The sociopath need only be killed, while the warrior—aye! The warrior must be subdued. The Talibin is dangerous because he is not a sociopath. He is not simply a marauder and a murderer, though he is that in part. He is also a moralist. He has a creed, however flawed. He is a man who acts because he has embraced something. If you kill such a man he will be replaced one of his kin—actual or ideological. But to refute him, you must tame him. You must make him your partisan. He will then restrain others like him. Thus and only thus will war ebb.”
A meteor tore through the starscape like a piece of artillery. You’re goddam right I made a wish.
“War is rebuke. War is condemnation of a transgression. It is, certainly, a continuation of politics by other means, but it is also a continuation of moral vision by other means. Therefore, it is not a preponderance of force which settles conflict. It is a preponderance of fervor. The Nazi who cries ‘Heil Hitler!’ troubles me because he resists not just my weaponry but also my rebuke. But a highwayman like Judge Holden? He would not trouble me. Were you to take out your paperback and by some divination render the judge corporeal, I would kill him on the spot.”
With the briefest yet most meaningful of pauses, he added, “There are no bullets in your weapon.”
Petraeus rose. He turned toward me. His beard, only three days since a razor last traversed his cheeks, was now as long and as thick as mine—and I haven’t shaved in eight years. His blue eyes glowed in the darkness like flarelets. He smelled great. Dave put his hand on my shoulder and added, “Try to catch some Zs, D.O’T. The 98 Posse’s gonna be here at 0500.” He slipped past me and went back to rest with his comrades.
I took General Petraeus’s abandoned seat and gazed at the dark mountain that had moments earlier held him in thrall. Of course there were no bullets in my gun. And that stock I had cursed? Probably broken beyond repair. Why would they give a freelance journalist an AK as if it were a field commission? They couldn’t risk me, in a panic, filling the night air with bullets just because some 56 year old was doing a few hundred push ups.
No, it was a security blanket. And it worked. I’d been nervous and edgy out on patrol, a distraction and possibly a danger to his men. But rather than send me home, Petraeus, ever-loyal, gave me something to steady my gait and help me sleep. His fatherly wisdom once again astounded me.
What was supposed to be a 20-minute interview for a men’s magazine puff-piece had become two months of constant companionship. He was no longer the subject of my profile. He was now my comrade. My brother-in-arms. Or how about simply: my brother.
However, it did not start well...
I arrived grumpy and jet-lagged, still reeking of booze and pussy from my layover in Berlin. One of his aides, a full colonel by the name of Whithers—fat cheeks and white hair and a grin that ran on a thousand volts, a four year veteran of the Petraeus brain trust and himself a Johns Hopkins Ph. D. overseeing a massive water reclamation project—prepped me with some stock rigmarole about his boss: how the General got the troops off the forward operating bases in Iraq and into the streets with the people; about the Sunni Awakening; about his prowess both mental and physical; and about that one time in Cana that he turned water into wine.
After a few minutes of this I held up a hand and said, “Save it. I’m too hungover for soundbytes.”
Colonel Whithers nodded and left the room.
A few minutes later the door opened. Petraeus entered first, his hand outstretched and his smile ripped wide—bright eyes, shitloads of teeth. Whithers slunk in behind to lean against the wall and eye me with disdain.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. O’Toole!” Petraeus said.
He didn’t so much shake my hand as crush it. His grip said, Son, don’t think you can fuck with me.
I told him it was a rare pleasure indeed and spat out a few platitudes about the honor and the privilege both which this oh for sure was.
Yeah, I know the game.
We sat down on a pair of mismatched couches and faced each other across a ratty old coffee table. Fanned just-so on the table were several issues of this magazine, as if the general neither had nor wanted anything else to read. I told the general the goal of the piece, how Harpers was giving out its regular Bad-Ass of the Year award. 2007 it was Rampage Jackson and the year before that it was D. Wade and the year before that it was Denzel.
“Sounds like I’m in good company!” he said with a big, forced laugh.
“Let’s just get started,” I said. “So… Sir… Col. Whithers tells me you run 5.6 miles every morning.”
“That’s right! 9 kilometers at 0500h! Never miss a day!”
“At a six minute and thirty second mile pace?”
“You better believe it!”
I tilted my head at him and made a skeptical grimace. “A 56 year old dude. Nine clicks. Every day. At that clip.” I paused for a long time. Finally I said, “I don’t.”
The general smiled. I didn’t. The general colored. I put a foot on the coffee table and gave him a look. I scraped my press ID against my beard and just stared.
I didn’t care if I was being a jag-off. I knew what Harpers wanted. But I knew what my readers needed. I’ve met so many of the golden ones, the gifted ones and chosen ones, from DC to Silicon Valley, from the Los Angeles Forum to Santiago Bernabéu, from London to the Bay! But most the time I just meet boys. Kids. No more able to expound on their gifts than a thoroughbred could discuss its speed.
Even worse, the Great Ones are often the Boring Ones. If you make your first billion by 30, odds are you’re a fucking dork who had nothing better to do with your time than work. If you can fade a drive just past a pine tree blocking a dogleg that's 360 yards away, it’s likely because you’ve never peered at the insides of a book, formed a single opinion, or have a single thing to say about anything at all.
And too often, in those rare times you detect a glimmer of life in a Great One, there’s some babysitter like Col. Whithers nearby eager to hide at all costs whatever slips through the PR machine. If Petraeus was a bona fide shadow-casting man, I needed to find out. I needed to circumvent this Whithers punk and whoever else they threw at me. I’d file the puff-piece if I had to—I got bills to pay like anyone else, Jim— but I needed to see if there was something more here. For my own sake at the very least.
So I just stared. My stare said, “Come to me. Try to impress me. I fucking dare you.”
Most famous cats are needy. You’d be surprised how often hey panic in the face of insolence. I come as an Ambassador from the Land of Don’t-Give-a-Fuck, and it shakes them. Suddenly, they babble until the truth comes out.
But not here. I began to see something beyond mere impatience in Petraeus. I could see it in his wry grin: he knew my angle and wouldn’t bite. Worse, he’d seen it before. He was probably about two seconds from calling the whole interview.
So I took my foot off the coffee table, removed my sunglasses, and stubbed out my joint. I slapped my hands together and took a friendlier tack. “Sir, I have an odd question. Can I challenge you to a push up contest?”
Petraeus’s smile returned.
Push ups: that’s his thing. Whether he’s in Ft. Bragg or on Capital Hill, he likes to challenge any soldier he sees to a contest. It’s part morale boost--the general talked to me! And hey, if he’s in such good shape maybe I should be too— and part dick-measuring contest. It’s his way of letting the soldiers know that despite the medals and the stars, the big shot Ph.D. and the foreign tongues and the memory that precedes their existence by three-and-a-half decades, he can out-soldier all of them. It also tells the rest of the officer class, with a stunt they’d never dare pull themselves, that they can’t touch him. Ever.
I hear he only lost once.
“How ‘bout I go first?” Petraeus said.
Whithers stepped in to remove the coffee table. Petraeus dropped to the ground and started belting out push ups at a relentless pace. Whithers counted aloud without being told.
Dave’s form is sublime. He sets his hands shoulder high, about 18 inches apart. His arms break well below ninety degrees and his chest smacks the ground with each descent. With each ascent his elbows lock, forming a perfect line from wrist to delt. He looks forward with a relaxed expression, lips closed, and breathes through his nose. The line from the back of his head to his heels is so straight, his form so steady, that you could set a pint of Heineken on his ass and he wouldn’t spill a drop. He beat them out at a metronomic pace until 290 then finally slowed. He ceased at 307.
“Bah! I’m getting soft!” He rose to his knees and slapped his quads in mock frustration. “Just the other day I did 325. Didn’t I, Whithers?”
“Yes, sir! In Herat.”
The bar set, I hit the carpet and got busy. I don’t really do push ups—I’m more a tension-machine kind of guy— but I’m ripped like you wouldn’t believe and used to surf professionally. Plus, the motherfucker is 56. I liked my odds.
I cruised through the first 190. At 192 Whithers said, “Lock those elblows!” I did 193 with one arm, holding the other aloft to make The Swear Finger at him. Petraeus laughed, and although it was really, really funny, the move cost me some power. Around 225 fatigue hit. By 240 I was taking about 5 seconds per. On the 254th ascent Petraeus gripped my pony tale, yanked my head backwards, and shouted into my ear, “Need some help!?”
Did it hurt?
Yup. Like a dis from my mom.
I gave out a grunt and collapsed. Beat. Beat by an old man. I struggled back onto the couch and, with a right arm I could barely lift, gave him a salute.
“Not even close,” Whithers said.
“What do you expect?” Petraeus said. “He’s a fucking pussy.”
Here, good old Whithers cut in just as I figured he would. “That’s off the record!” He pointed at my huge reel-to-reel tape recorder and barked, “Delete that! The general did not say ‘fucking pussy’! Understand? It never happened. And you will not mention that he pulled your hair. Do I make myself clear?”
Petraeus didn’t speak. He just smiled at me. His grin said, Play ball, son. But his eyes? Well, they said something else entire. In them I saw a grizzly trapped in a birdcage. The bear gripped the bars with its fearsome claws and said, Help me, in a stately ursine tongue.
I stood up. “Let me get one thing straight, boys: I’m the C.O. here, and nothing is off the record. I only got one editor and she’s in New York. If the word 'pussy' gets cut, that’s her call. If you don’t like my terms we can end the interview and I’ll take the 14,000-mile trip back to Chi-town… my beloved Chi-town… But I will be damned before I write a propaganda piece just because it’s in the best interest of Uncle Scam. I write what’s in the best interest of my reader, to whom I am but a slave. Got it?”
Petraeus stood. We glared at each other, inches apart, grill-to-grill, for five minutes. Then he punched me hard in the stomach.
I collapsed like a stack of display cereal boxes at a grocery store that some dick knocked over by removing one of the load-bearing boxes on the bottom toward the center. While writhing on the floor I heard Petraeus say, “I like this guy. Get his gear together, Whithers. He’s coming with us to Kandahar.”
Brother, I was five-feet seven-inches of pain right about then. But as I gasped for breath, something close to a smile came over my face.
Note: The “98 Posse” mentioned in part one is a Public Enemy reference. The idea is that Petraeus nicknamed his helicopers after Chuck D’s legendary fleet of Oldsmobile Ninety-Eights. I had this whole thing in my mind that he was an enormous P.E. fan to the point he prefered people to call him Flavor Dave. Alas, if only I had finished this... Section three was gonna be full of arcane P.E. references.