David Petraeus is seated on stage, one leg over the other. The spotlight shines. A vase of flowers shimmers on the table. Sept. 11, 2013, Duke University. His first paid engagement since leaving the CIA in disgrace. A giant placard to his right reads “American Grand Strategy,” the title of the program that brought him here.
Its logo features prominently. In it, the United States is lit up in white, a five-point star at its center. The rest of the planet is covered in darkness.
Somewhere in that darkness, worshippers are leaving a Shiite mosque after evening prayers. Ten years since the Americans came and changed things forever. Sept. 11, 2013, Baghdad. A car bomb explodes, and onlookers rush to help the injured. In the chaos, a suicide bomber detonates. 33 die in the blasts; many more are wounded. Police see a second man fumbling with his explosive belt and stop him, but they are no match for the furious mob. The failed bomber is stabbed to death on the spot.
It has been a gruesome summer in Baghdad. The pogroms have reached sizes unseen since the “surge” of 2007-08. Under Petraeus’s guidance, the Americans backed the Shiite side in the civil war then. But the occupier is gone now. Past scores are being settled strictly in Iraqi blood.
In Durham, Petraeus speaks of policy mistakes and miscalculations made by allies.
I am reminded of the high British officials that strolled away from the flames of their divided South Asian colony in 1947, shrugging. A million people were slaughtered in religious riots along the new India-Pakistan border that summer. “Lying like the garbage across the street and in its open gutters were bodies of the dead,” a few of them my relatives’. Here were infant governments hastily assembled by a foreign power, too weak to contain a violent ethnic hatred heightened in bids to divide and conquer. The script for empire—and the arc of its collapse—has hardly aged.
Just a slight nudge: That is the extent of our responsibility. We are not to blame for the slide into the abyss.
A political animal has in the rhythm of its heartbeat the holy mantra “plausible deniability,” that gift from the Kennedy-era CIA. At any moment be prepared to demonstrate the cleanliness of your hands … and if they are not, lie. Petraeus unfortunately had to follow the second course when I stood in front of the microphone two weeks ago. After reading my last column on the ex-General, Duke’s Peter Feaver invited me hear him out. Give war a shot; maybe pose a question. I agreed.
I asked about the United States’ first strike in Yemen, the shelling of al-Majalah ordered by General Petraeus in 2009.
As the words started leaving my mouth, he averted his eyes. David Petraeus did not look at me again. I still wonder what memories came to his mind as he gazed out at a faraway point in the crowd.
For my question, I received a summary of the classification schemata for such strikes, secret as they are. It is an impressive chain of command, fastidiously followed. I learned that David Petraeus “cannot acknowledge” the attack he authorized, which incinerated 21 children and 14 women, whose cluster bombs still explode and kill visitors. I was curiously informed “no conversations took place” between him and Yemen’s dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, about the ensuing cover-up and jailing of a journalist. To be fair, the claim is possible. He could have stayed silent when Saleh told him, “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” in a meeting on Jan. 2, 2010.
David Petraeus: war criminal probably, “warrior-intellectual” certainly. He can wave around his Princeton PhD, but the torture conducted by secret police under his watch —“breaking hands and legs … electric drills to pierce their bodies”— is a blurrier line to trace. When an Iraqi broadcaster began to show detainees after their ordeals, Petraeus’s office called in to tell them not to do that. The deniability has to be plausible.
An impressive chain of command, fastidiously followed.
Students at the City University of New York recently faced pain for breaking the chain of command, nonviolently protesting Petraeus’s academic appointment outside Macaulay Honors College. They were punched in the head, shoved and slammed against vehicles by NYPD in response. A video of an immobile student face-down on the pavement, cops’ knees digging into his back as a plainclothes officer repeatedly punched his kidneys, went viral. Six students of color now face charges after being held for 20 hours.
Just more people in uniform, carrying out Petraeus’s good works.
Indignant faculty—represented by a 25,000-member union—have since unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the repression. More than 300 CUNY educators and graduate students have signed a growing petition demanding Petraeus’s termination. Investigative journalist Steve Horn describes it as a “watershed moment” in the university’s history.
But for now, David Petraeus is still seated, one leg over the other, watching the darkness creeping toward his lecturer’s podium, surrounding the car he takes to his Wall Street landing pad. Those of us in the shadows will not stay silent, even as the police batons rise. We cannot afford to. Conscience is all we have.
Prashanth Kamalakanthan is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday. Send Prashanth a message on Twitter @pkinbrief.