When Abraham Lincoln was told at the height of the devastating civil war that his most successful general, Ulysses Grant, was drinking too much he wanted to know the brand of Grant's favourite whisky so that he could send his general a few cases. Eight decades later, during the Second World War, rumour was rife that Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the European theatre of operations, was having an affair with the lady who drove his car. Censorship ensured that this never escaped the confines of coterie gossip. The American system, sensibly, might not care too much about peacetime generals but it protected its wartime commanders. Grant and Eisenhower went on to become elected Presidents.
Class-conscious Britain went a step further: it protected its losers as well, apart from offering huge financial bonuses to successful generals, not to mention the occasional elevation to Prime Minister to heroes like Wellington. Lord Cornwallis was not punished for losing the American colonies to George Washington; he was sent off to India to fight the French. Lord Wavell messed up the African front in the Second World War, turning Churchill apoplectic. Wavell was given a soft landing in Delhi as Viceroy.
If America has a modern war hero then it is surely David Petraeus, who was not only good at his job but also fulfilled Napoleon's criterion: he was lucky as well. He pulled America out of the Iraq quagmire just enough to save face, and was acclaimed for leaving Afghanistan better than he found it. Perhaps his predecessors deserved much of the credit, but Petraeus was in the right place at the right time, and who can argue with that? Although he was a George Bush general, Barack Obama co-opted him into his team. Republicans promoted him as a future party nominee for the White House, and cynics have noted that this might have been one of the reasons why Obama made him CIA chief after his Afghan tour. Such was the paucity of talent in Republican ranks in 2012 that Petraeus just might have won the nomination this year, and then who knows who might have been sitting in the White House today.
Instead Petraeus has been forced to resign after a delayed revelation of an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, a scalp-hunter who clearly wrote this adulatory book for reasons quite different than a love of writing.
Republicans promoted Petraeus as a future party nominee for the White House, and cynics have noted that this might have been one of the reasons why Obama made him CIA chief after his Afghan tour.
There is a strong Puritan streak in America which demands standards of sexual probity among its politicians that would rid Europe of almost all its senior politicians, except perhaps Angela Merkel of Germany; and even the saintly Merkel put posters in her last campaign that emphasised her handsome cleavage. No American woman politician could afford to do that, although America is consumed by a parallel prurient appetite for sexual junk at a mass-consumption level.
But Petraeus was not running for public office. His affair ended four months ago. Nor was it much of a secret when it was happening, since young Paula was seen more often in his company than his wife of 37 years. There is much mystery about the "jealousy" emails from another woman with ties to American agencies that led to this "exposure". It exploded in public just after Obama was re-elected, or when he had become invulnerable to this mess. The official story is that Obama had no clue about the FBI investigation that undid Petraeus. It is hard to believe that the President was not informed that his CIA chief had become a potential security risk — at the start of the investigation, not at its end.
There remains the Agatha Christie in any mystery: who gains from the death of a reputation? Barack Obama. Petraeus was too iconic a figure to be sacked. He had to be outmanoeuvred, at the right moment. His mistake could have been covered up, or even pardoned, since he had left the Army, and CIA chiefs have more leeway than Army chiefs. But Petraeus' departure deflects an immediate problem in addition to wounding any long-term political ambitions he might entertain.
The murder of American ambassador Christopher Stevens in a CIA safehouse in Benghazi, Libya, on the anniversary of 9/11 is shrouded in intense controversy. Someone has something to hide, perhaps for good reason. As CIA chief at the time, Petraeus must defend the Obama administration, even as his departure prevents him from shifting the narrative. There is also talk that Obama wanted Petraeus out as he begins a play for a deal with Iran.
And who is laughing today, possibly all the way to Kabul tomorrow? The Taliban, at whose expense Petraeus won so much glory. A Taliban spokesman could not contain his glee as he told an AFP correspondent in Pakistan on 15 November: from a Pashtun point of view, America's hero should be shot by relatives of mistress' family, and from a Sharia standpoint stoned to death.
Washington's revenge may be slightly different, but it is no less painful.