The great triumvirate of America's European victory in World War II -- George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley -- doesn't fare much better. Marshall, the acknowledged architect of that triumph and after Washington our greatest general, is nearly untouchable in the annals of our military history -- but there are detractors. He was an officer who stood aloof from his colleagues; many remember him as a figure without any personal warmth who was relentlessly ruthless in pursuit of his goals. "That man ruined my husband," a wife is quoted as saying when she saw him pass. When he assigned an officer to an overseas command, the officer told him he would report after he finished packing. That's all right, said Marshall, who was put off by the delay: "We will not be needing your services."
The same was said of Eisenhower, even by his closest friends: "I would rather be commanded by an Arab," Patton wrote in his diary. Others noted that when the war started, "Ike" could regularly be seen "brown nosing" the high command. Eisenhower had Lee's disease: He promoted and stood by his friends -- like Gen. Mark Clark, who, trailed by a bevy of worshipful reporters, insisted on being photographed "from my good side" and badly botched Allied operations in Italy.
Ike, like Petraeus and MacArthur, also sought female company as a respite from the rigors of command. Eisenhower's Broadwell was Kay Summersby, who accompanied him everywhere during the war -- though it now seems clear that their affection remained unconsummated. Like Broadwell, described to me this week by a civilian familiar with her relationship with Petraeus in Afghanistan, Summersby was Ike's "deputy wife."
Finally, there's the legendary Omar Bradley, dubbed "the G.I. General" by journalist Ernie Pyle because he was so beloved by his men. But was he? General Terry de la Mesa Allen described him as "a phony Abraham Lincoln." Bradley returned the favor: He relieved Allen, shuttling him off to the rear. Eisenhower, exasperated, gave Allen a new command, which so irritated Bradley that, after the war, it was one of the reasons that he wrote that he thought Ike "one of the most overrated men in military history."
The backbiting would no doubt sound familiar to Petraeus. Many years ago, I was asked to provide a briefing on a point of military history to a group of senior military commanders at the Pentagon, during the course of which I happened to mention General Petraeus's name. It was mistake: The room fell uncomfortably and starkly silent. After a moment, I smiled and plunged on, ignoring the long stares of the officers facing me.
"They know him well, have served with him, and don't like him," my host later explained. He shrugged: "It's his ego, you see. He promotes himself."
There we have it: The blemished pantheon of American military commanders, all of them stained with ambition and ego, and brim full of failings. At the end of the day, Petraeus fits in after all. The combination of unstinting ambition and enormous ego that led to his downfall are precisely the qualities that can be found among those great American commanders who preceded him.
Just look at MacArthur's career. After Isabel was shunted aside, he was used by Roosevelt to fight Ross Collins on the budget -- and won. He then served as military advisor to the Philippines, and subsequently retired. But in 1940, with war looming, Marshall urged FDR to return him to uniform to face the Japanese. Roosevelt didn't hesitate: MacArthur knew how to fight, and his country needed him.
The same might be true now of David Petraeus. Historians note with passable interest the blushing scandals of Isabel, Kay, and Paula, but inevitably return to those moments that define a great, if flawed, military commander: the cold and bitter winter at Valley Forge, the endless afternoon at Gettysburg, the day when Doug waded ashore at Leyte, when Ike stood aghast at Buchenwald -- and when Dave stood in the Senate, right arm raised, and testified that while nobody knows "how this might end" he, at least, had a plan.