WASHINGTON — At the start of the year, retired Gen. David Petraeus was flying high. He was the director of the CIA and was often mentioned as a prospective presidential candidate.
He was the most recognized and heralded general of his generation, the subject of many adoring news stories and books. He had been the hero of the Iraq war, turning around an apparent disaster with the troop surge. And in 2010, he was called in to take over the Afghan war after Gen. Stanley McChrystal's dismissal.
Then Nov. 9 happened. That was the day Petraeus resigned his post, citing "extremely poor judgment" — code for an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.
Typical of this digital age, the affair was exposed via email. The FBI began investigating Broadwell after she sent harassing emails to a woman in Tampa, Fla., who knew the general. Agents then discovered that she and Petraeus were leaving draft messages for each other in a Gmail account they shared. (Tricky, tricky . . .)
The Petraeus-Broadwell affair just kept spiraling outward. We met Jill Kelley, the Tampa socialite whose closeness to Petraeus had stoked the ire of Broadwell, who emailed Kelley, warning her to stay away from the general. Kelley brought Gen. John Allen into the tangled web as it was revealed that they had exchanged 20,000 to 30,000 pages of emails. (Details of the emails' content are murky, but the controversy has sidelined Allen's nomination to lead the U.S. European Command.)
The whole episode exposed a military culture that the average person — or at least The Washington Post's politics blog the Fix — had been clueless about. Generals such as Petraeus are treated like kings, traveling in motorcades and having their food prepared by gourmet chefs. (Gourmet chefs!)
Despite the armed services' culture of discipline and great reverence for their leaders, the men at the top are, it seems, mere mortals prone to infidelity. Petraeus became the face of that inevitable-but-still-depressing realization: a man treated like a god (and who maybe thought he was one) who wound up being all too human.