Petraeus's admirers will recoil from any comparison of their hero with the much-maligned MacArthur, whose reputation has suffered grievously over the years because of his actions during the Bonus March and his later showdown with Harry Truman. And they would correctly point out several notable differences: While MacArthur finished first in his West Point class and holds one of the highest grade points in academy history, second only to Robert E. Lee, it is difficult to append the word "scholar" to his name. Not so with Petraeus, who holds an advanced degree from Princeton and authored the now famous U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Then too, MacArthur flirted endlessly with higher office and yearned after the presidency -- a virus only rumored to have infected Petraeus, despite his adamant denials. Nor would anyone suppose that Petraeus would confront a president to the point of near insubordination, as MacArthur confronted Harry Truman, who relieved him of his command for doing so. MacArthur hated Truman and made it known; it's hard to imagine the cautious Petraeus hating anyone -- most especially a president.
But the differences might well end there. Petraeus and MacArthur share more than a history of sexual peccadilloes: Like every great military commander, both boasted an unstinting ambition and an enormous ego, and left a long list of bitter and exasperated enemies within the U.S. military in their wake. Such qualities are a common thread running through our nation's history -- for in the pantheon of great American generals, there has not been a single modest man.
Let's go back to the very beginning. George Washington was a far better president than general -- he was beaten in nearly every engagement except Trenton (where he faced drunken Hessians) and the last, at Yorktown. He promoted his favorites, picked terrible subordinates, was overly sensitive, quick to anger, and stupidly impatient. That we won with him at all is, as one historian states, "almost a miracle."
Ulysses S. Grant, on the other hand, won nearly every battle he fought, but at a terrible cost. At Cold Harbor, his soldiers pinned their names to their uniforms so their corpses could be identified. "His ambition is like a little engine," his friend Billy Sherman said. Grant's great weakness was liquor -- which spurred Lincoln to quip that he should find out what he drank so more might be sent him. "I need him," Lincoln said. "He fights."
Lee is different. We celebrate Robert E. Lee, an outlier in our pantheon who talked endlessly of doing the "honorable" thing, though we suspect now that he probably did that in reverse order -- he decided what he wanted to do, and called it honorable. He was stubborn to the point of being sightless, as he was on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, when he dismissed a better plan of attack from his subordinate -- James Longstreet -- in favor of a direct assault on Union lines. After the war, George Pickett, who mounted that infamous charge, could hardly bring himself to face him. "That man murdered my division," he told a friend. Lee's disease was that he promoted Virginians like A.P. Hill and Dick Ewell (and that curse on humanity, Jubal Early), and favored them over better and more capable officers. It was his one failing, but it might have been fatal.