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The Wrong Petraeus Scandal

The media blitz is fully engaged around the latest Washington sex scandals, and with it come nascent cheers from some anti-war sectors over the public unraveling of the top brass who have helped to orchestrate the longest war in U.S. history. On email threads and in the blogosphere, one is likely to view celebratory remarks laced with words like “comeuppance,” “karma,” and “justice.” Yet while it may be true that there’s a certain element of ironic remuneration in all of this, it’s also the case that such episodes can serve to draw our focus toward the wrong issues and the wrong scandals.

It isn’t the sexual dalliances of the power elite that merit our critical gaze, but rather the sadistic destruction of their everyday actions as architects of institutionalized, taxpayer-funded brutality. The real transgressions here are not crimes of passion, but crimes of war: massive civilian casualties, destruction of nations, bankrupting the domestic economy, torture and rendition, drones raining extrajudicial death from above. These are the reasons to bring down a demagogue; doing so under other pretenses threatens to cloud the issues, while a successor is hastily named to continue the war effort. It would be a worse scandal if we allow this to happen.

Only in America could such rabid sexual Puritanism combine with uncritical genocidal complicity. We seem to have a unique capacity to condemn more mundane forms of human lust even as we thoroughly exercise our collective bloodlust without much reflection or remorse. Does it really matter much if a general has a love affair or betrays his family, when the war policies he has helped to design and implement have destroyed countless families and fractured the bonds of love among people half a world away? Maybe we should care a bit less about who they’re screwing than how we’re all being screwed all the time.

In this light, we can surmise that politics surely plays a role in all of this. Perhaps this signals an effort to slowly downsize the military and hasten an end to the war without end. Maybe it’s part of a larger foreign policy shakeup that will become evident in the near future. Possibly there’s a strategic shift afoot to deemphasize hardware and prioritize software in the next generation of conflict. It could also be the case that such revelations are a way of reducing in rank those whose policies have failed to produce the promised results. But we should be having those substantive discussions rather than merely the salacious ones.

Granted, there’s a certain degree of delightful irony in all of this, as “war on terror” stalwarts get bitten by the very same post-9/11 surveillance apparatuses that were imposed on all of us under the pretext of catching terrorists. The ease by which electronic communications of all sorts are delivered to law enforcement by internet providers should give us great pause in a free society. Progressives and civil libertarians have long complained about the intrusiveness of such practices, and how they broach the leading edge of punishing people for “thought crimes” right out of authoritarian dystopias. In a perverse twist, we might even consider whether we should be defending the defrocked generals’ right to privacy.

In fact, by arguing against the Patriot Act and its progeny, at least we would move the dialogue closer to the actual issues at hand. The entire post-9/11 paradigm — preemptive action, perpetual warfare, unilateralism, secrecy and surveillance, unbridled executive authority, manipulation of fear — should be under close scrutiny more so than the titillating details of anyone’s personal indiscretions. Perhaps we could argue that the two are related, i.e., as concrete expressions of cavalier hubris and moral turpitude. But if so, that point needs to be put forth more incisively than is taking place in the gossip mill right now.

In the end, I don’t want to put a damper on the chortles of an anti-war contingent in desperate need of even a small victory after more than a decade (longer, really) under the dark clouds of escalating militarism. I get why a story like this resonates and even appears as a form of rough justice to many. Still, it seems to me that larger issues yet pervade, and that we would do well not to lose sight of them — lest we find ourselves (to borrow an unfortunate phrase) winning the battle but losing the war.

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and is the publisher and editor of New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012) and Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008).

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