Talk is cheap, Gen. Petraeus. You may not agree. After all, your Washington, D.C., “super lawyer,” Bob Barnett, charges you something like $900 an hour for a kind of talk best described as “reputation reconfiguration” or “image management,” and that’s not cheap. Still, you probably consider it effective.
Judging by your recent coming-out party at a University of Southern California dinner to honor the military — your first public foray since you disappeared in a cloud of Paula Broadwell — whatever advice you’ve been buying seems to be working. You came, you apologized, you received a standing ovation. The media melted all over again into a puddle of admiration, further obscuring the real reasons you should be not apologizing before a gala crowd, but rather testifying before the American people: those national scandals you have so far successfully left in your dust.
I have previously addressed such scandals and will do so again: lying to the House Intelligence Committee about Benghazi twice; causing death and dismemberment of U.S. forces by directing them to walk the IED-packed roads of Afghanistan as part of a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy to win Afghans’ “trust”; and your see-no-Islam COIN strategy itself. For the moment, though, as you seek and already seem to have received public forgiveness, there is something else to consider: What you can do to give meaning to your words.
It’s not enough to time your first public address in five months to coincide with an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal this week to make the case, in subtext, that it’s not just your own next act that concerns you but also the plight of some 3 million returning veterans who may find themselves, as you write, at the bottom of the corporate ladder, underemployed or in dead-end jobs. In conclusion, you write, “Now it is our turn to do our part to help (veterans) build promising futures for themselves and their families.”
Here’s an idea — gratis — to make us trust the sincerity of your call to help veterans and their families build those promising futures. Take that apparently bulletproof reputation of yours and use it to seek clemency for the so-called Leavenworth 10.
This tag refers to a group of American soldiers now serving long prison terms mainly at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., for “crimes” committed on your COIN battlefield in Iraq, and also Afghanistan. Across time and space, from desks in orderly offices peering into ghastly battlefields, obsessed military prosecutors have been able to see “murder” and even “premeditated murder” in the eyes of these soldiers who were blinded by the densest fog of war.
Since it was you who ordered these young men into the hostile urban combat zones in Iraq to win “hearts and minds,” since it was you who set them up, unable to tell friend from foe, to earn “trust and confidence” amid hostile outposts in Afghanistan, it should now be you who leads them out of their living hells. Long after the U.S. government has released tens of thousands of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan — including Hezbollah mastermind Musa Daqduq, for example — it is time for you, the leading general in these wars, to declare that these young Americans, these American prisoners of COIN, have been punished enough.
I refer, for example, to 1st Lt. Michael Behenna, the elite Army Ranger whose last-ditch interrogation of an al-Qaida terrorist ended when, as forensic evidence indicates, he killed the detainee he was questioning in self-defense. Michael has served roughly four years behind bars, but that’s only a dent in his 15-year sentence.
There is Pvt. Corey Clagett, the most junior and the only imprisoned member of an Army squad implicated in following direct orders to shoot captured Iraqi insurgents in Operation Iron Triangle. Corey was sentenced to 18 years; cruelly and unusually, he has already spent nearly seven years in solitary confinement.
There is Sgt. Evan Vela, the first-tour Army sniper whose commander ordered him to kill a captured Iraqi struggling to blow the squad’s cover behind enemy lines. He was sentenced to 10 years. There is also Sgt. Derrick Miller, an Army National Guard veteran of Afghanistan, who, during a harsh interrogation, killed in self-defense an Afghan who had penetrated his squad’s defensive perimeter. He received life in prison, with the possibility of parole in 10 years.
There are more such men whose names you should know — Marine Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins (sentenced to 11 years), Army Master Sgt. John Hatley (sentenced to 40 years) — whose tragic stories should in truth keep you awake at night, whose families will need your help if ever they are to get a chance to build those “promising futures” you glibly wrote about.
All of these young Americans marched into the crosshairs of COIN, the place where your “hearts and minds” strategy blew up, the place where living among, loving, respecting and bribing Iraqis and Afghans according to COIN’s see-no-Islam tenets became life-or-death propositions. These men managed to stay alive. According to COIN, that’s their main offense.
You, Gen. Petraeus, could go a long way to change that by pleading for their clemency in the name of healing, even as you plead your own. The war is over in Iraq; it is winding down in Afghanistan. Such humbling efforts would represent a new beginning for them — and for you.
(Diana West’s new book is “American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character,” forthcoming in May 2013 from St. Martin’s Press. She blogs at dianawest.net, and she can be contacted via email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @diana_west_.)