David Petraeus: Perfect Avatar for America’s Corrupt Ruling Class

General David Petraeus, for many years (decades?) lauded as the greatest and most successful soldier of his generation, just insulted, in terms paradoxically both implicit and vicious, the men who made both his military renown and his post-military success and wealth possible.

“The most significant terrorist threat in the United States is not actually from Islamist extremists, it’s from right-wing terrorists in our own country,” he recently said to a gathering of elites.

This assertion, in a sense, is unremarkable given that it has become a common ruling-class talking point. It’s a lie, of course. Your own senses tell you so. When was the last time you even heard of a “right-wing” terror attack, much less one that actually inflicted mass casualties? 

Sure, the ruling class and its propaganda arm tell you that they happen all the time, but they’re lying. They don’t lie merely by predicting waves of rightist violence that never materialize—though they do predict that, often. 

Remember all those “warnings” of right-wing terror that would rock America in the event of a Trump loss? Allegedly violent Trump supporters have an even stronger case than mere loss to be angry, given the fishiness of the election and their belief that it was stolen. And yet none have so much as broken a window, much less committed any acts of terror. The one major demonstration in Washington, D.C. was entirely, not “mostly,” peaceful—that is, until leftist thugs showed up to beat on the marchers. Beatings which the same people who, naturally, never apologized for being wrong about imminent right-wing violence just as naturally never mentioned.

Nor does the ruling class merely lie by saying that every act of violence by the melanin-challenged is somehow connected to Nazism—though of course they do say that, daily. They also insist, risibly, that violence manifestly committed by people who are neither white nor on the Right is nevertheless perpetrated by the white Right. Witness, in only the most recent and egregious example, the repeated attempts to attribute 2020’s Antifa-BLM riots to “white supremacists.”

Don’t trust your own eyes and ears? How about “data”? Terrorism expert Timothy Furnish has found since the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, Islamic terrorists have murdered just under 28,000 people worldwide. The global death toll over the same period from every act of violence even plausibly—that is to say, not necessarily—connected to “white supremacy” is 346. Or 1.5 percent of the Islamist butcher’s bill. This is the “grave, urgent threat” that David Petraeus insists poses the greatest danger to our country.

Petraeus may be lying from conviction. Certainly, all his peers in the ruling class believe, or profess to believe, that native-born whites are uniquely evil and hell-bent on killing their fellow citizens. And it can be hard to tell genuine ruling class belief from merely useful cant. Yet there’s no doubt that this particular lie is useful—to them. It’s one of the key ways in which the ruling class libel and smear dissent against their rapacity and misrule. So Petraeus has an interest in saying what he said, whether he believes it or not.

Who Does Petraus Think Made Him a Success? 

Who is David Petraeus? Currently, he’s a partner at KKR, one of the world’s two or three most important private equity firms. What is “private equity”? The charitable way to describe that activity is the buying up of failing or underperforming companies and making them more profitable via a ruthless imposition of focus and efficiency. The less charitable description is “vulture capitalism”: hunting down value, wherever it may be, and stripping it out of even successful companies by closing facilities, laying off workers, outsourcing production and any other move that might reduce costs and (further) enrich the firm’s new owners.

Whatever you may think of private equity—salutary driver of market discipline or greedy despoiler of the American heartland—the fact remains that David Petraeus is not a private equity investor nor an analyst capable of restructuring even the smallest company. He’s a former military officer—a capable one, by all accounts—now getting rich from the profits of private equity by trading on his former service and (especially) his domestic and foreign government contacts.

Which is what makes the lie especially egregious coming from Petraeus’s lips. Why is David Petraeus famous? That is, apart from getting fired from the CIA over an extramarital affair and receiving a slap on the wrist for illegally sharing classified information with his mistress? His prior claim to fame, the one that won him his current job and stature, was to have successfully presided over the Iraq “Surge” of 2007, in which a bloody, three-year insurgency was finally quashed.

How was the Surge accomplished? In part by spreading around an enormous number of American greenbacks to buy off local militias. But also, in part, via “COIN,” or counter-insurgency warfare doctrine, a body of thought and practice revived from its post-Vietnam oblivion by David Petraeus. (This is another pillar of Petraeus’ fame; a so-called “soldier-scholar,” he has a Ph.D. from Princeton.) 

One tenet of COIN as reimagined, and implemented, by Petraeus is that soldiers attempting to pacify an insurgency must show their “virtue” to the local population by taking risks, i.e., exposing themselves to danger. This is not, to say the least, what soldiers are ordered to do in nearly all other combat situations. But many thousands followed this particular order.

Again, whatever you may think of the Iraq war—nobly-intended tragedy, pointless adventure, deep state conspiracy—or the Surge, there can be no doubt that Petraeus’s success was achieved on the backs of American soldiers—many of whom lost their lives, and many more others, limbs, to achieve it.

Where did those soldiers come from? The overwhelming majority of American service members who volunteer for dangerous combat roles grow up in red, rural, conservative America: the South, Appalachia, the Rust Belt, the Mountain West. The majority are also, not to put too fine a point on it, white—exactly the demographic that the ruling class has in its targeting sights when it lies about the alleged threat from “right-wing terrorists.”

Why the Need to Insult?

It’s no exaggeration to say that, without these proto “right-wing terrorists” and the milieus from which they emerge, the United States military would have no combat units at all. To say the least, woke transsexual gender studies majors from the blue coasts are not showing up in droves, or even singly, to Officer Candidate School or basic training. Neither are the children of the upper, upper middle, and increasingly the middle classes. 

The military, at least for its combat missions, is more reliant than ever on that part of America that the ruling class openly despises. What would it do without them? Stop fighting constabulary wars? Either that or scour the rest of the country to recruit men far less committed to the mission, and probably less good at their jobs, than those who volunteered to fight the post 9/11 wars and made the Surge a success.

Why insult these people, then? Why denigrate their families, faith, and communities by insinuating that the places from which they come are breeding grounds of terror, violence and hate? For, from where else may we assume this alleged “right-wing terrorist threat” originates? Portland? Santa Monica? The Upper West Side?

Either Petraeus really believes what he said or he said it because he knows it’s what his ruling class paymasters want to hear—and especially want to hear from professional talking heads like David Petraeus. We can assume Petraeus knows the latter; he’s not a stupid man. Is this, therefore, a case where interest and belief coincide? Or was he, perhaps unthinkingly, selling out the brave men he used to command and whose success made his reputation and caused his great good fortune and wealth?

I don’t know the answer. Either way, the incident is revealing—not about what the ruling class thinks of us; we already knew that. It is instead revelatory of how insincere is their unctuous, ubiquitous praise of our men in uniform, of the sentiment behind all those incessant repetitions of “thank you for your service.”

There are many reasons to wonder how long the ruling class can keep recruiting stalwart young men to fight its wars—not least being our best-and-brightest’s inability to win seemingly anywhere or even to define victory. Expressions of contempt such as the one uttered recently by David Petraeus are, however small by comparison, another such reason. 

About Michael Anton

Michael Anton is a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and a former national security official in the Trump Administration. He formerly wrote under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus when he was a senior editor of American Greatness. The is the author, most recently, of The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return.

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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