By R.L. SCHREADLEY
“A youth boiling with hormones will wonder why he should not give full freedom to his sexual desires; and if he is unchecked by custom, morals, or laws, he may ruin his life before he matures sufficiently to understand that sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group.”
— Will and Ariel Durant, “The Lessons of History”
The fall from grace of CIA Director David Petraeus has shocked the nation. No — titillated is the better word. Titillated in a way not felt since the 1998 revelation of President Bill Clinton’s affair with a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. Impeached by the House, but not convicted by the Senate, for what he called an improper relationship (“I have not had sex with that woman”), Clinton served two successful terms and now is a revered elder statesman and icon within the Democratic Party. Sic semper shamelessness.
We live in licentious times. Sexual freedom or, if you wish, sexual depravity, is arguably greater now in America than at anytime in our country’s brief history. A sea change has occurred in the way a clear majority now views what the Durants so aptly described as the “river of fire” that affects and not infrequently consumes the lives of so many of us. There are only a few saints in our company when it comes to sex, and some of them are wisely not above suspicion. Consider the trauma that has afflicted the Catholic Church in recent years.
Sex sells. You see it in our books, our music, our theater, our films, our art. It has always been thus to one degree or another.
There is no denying, though, that in the lifetime of most of us now living, we as a people have grown much closer in terms of sexual expression to Imperial Rome under Caligula than to Imperial London under Victoria. And that’s even after taking into account the hypocrisy that always obscures the reality of human sexual behavior.
I grew up in an era (the Great Depression years) when abortion, aka a woman’s right to choose, was considered by many to be infanticide, when homosexuality was whispered about but not celebrated, when adultery was frowned upon publicly even by those who practiced it joyfully in private, and when out-of-wedlock birth (before the pill!) was relatively rare.
My, how times have changed! And not always for the worse or the better.
But some things never change. Power is, always has been, and always will be an incredibly potent aphrodisiac. It works no less effectively on those who possess it than it does on those sexually attracted to it. Many great generals before Petraeus were moral in public and libertine in practice. So were not a few U.S. presidents before Clinton (Jefferson and JFK come to mind). It is how they dealt with it after being found out that distinguishes one from another.
In that respect, Gen. Petraeus fares rather well. He confessed to his indiscretion and tendered his resignation. It was the honorable thing to do.
Petraeus is almost universally admired for his military achievement in Iraq and Afghanistan — but not by me. I do not believe that “nation building” is something any general should be intrusted with. The counterinsurgency plan he is credited for drawing up and implementing, reduced for the sake of argument and simplicity, essentially put the enemy in Iraq, and to a lesser degree the enemy in Afghanistan, on America’s payroll.
It bought our country time to exit Iraq in a less embarrassing way than in Vietnam a generation earlier, but what it left behind is a country and a people not measurably better off than before our intervention, or more inclined to further our national interest. I predict that when our last troops leave Afghanistan the story will be much the same.
Gen. Petraeus leaves a similarly murky record as director of the CIA. Still unexplained is his agency’s bewildering “briefings” concerning the attack on our consulate in Benghazi that took the lives of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.
As of now, Gen. Petraeus appears to have given cover to the White House and the State Department in the critical period leading up to the presidential election.
That election is now history.
A crying need for full disclosure is not.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.