The Centauromachy of the Military Industrial Complex & the Surveillance State
The original Petraeus of ancient Greece was a centaur, a mythical chimera with the body of a man from head to waist, the physique of a horse from loins to hooves and—thanks to this potent hybridization—a voracious sexual appetite. As legend tells us, when he and several other centaurs attended a royal wedding in Thessaly, Petraeus got totally smashed on the king’s fine wine, then proceeded to grab the bride and ravish her, as his fellow horse/men, also violently drunk and horny, commenced attacking the other female guests, turning the wedding party into a stampeding gang rape. With the cunning of a man and the genitalia of a stallion, Petraeus and the other centaurs proved formidable rapists and might have succeeded in their beastly assault. But several human guests, the legendary King Theseus among them, saved the day and the wedding party, fighting off the rapacious beasts, killing Petraeus and several other centaurs in what became known as the battle of the Centauromachy (a favorite classical art motif), while the rest ran off galloping for the Thessalian hills.
Fast forward to modern American reality mixed with a hefty dose of media mythologizing, and we have *our* Petraeus (though his folks are Dutch, the name still bears the old Greek meaning), famed former CIA chief and four-star general who recently confessed to surrendering to the embedded charms and well-toned arms of his hagiographer, tight-bodied and loose-lipped army reservist Paula Broadwell. This put them and a few of their friends and colleagues in the center of a superstorm of internecine investigations, horn-honking headlines and titillating gossip at the highest levels of the U.S. “military industrial complex” (MIC).
Of course, David Petraeus is not a mythical centaur, though he does run at a pace that’s close to galloping, his “smart bombs” have ruined a few wedding parties, his war heroics have been greatly mythologized and his sexual appetites, blended with that other old Greek intoxicant, hubris, certainly made him “drunk” enough to fall from a dizzying height of American grace and prominence.
What else but hubris—that extreme arrogance most often exhibited by people in power—explains why the CIA’s chief secret keeper couldn’t foresee that his own agency’s über-invasive cyber-snooping surveillance apparatus could be used (in this case, by the FBI) to peek right into his pathetically insecure “system” of saving and viewing unsent email messages in an anonymous Gmail account, and catch him with his pants down?
Many civil liberties advocates have already noted the irony in the Patriot Act, having given government agencies unprecedented spying abilities, coming around to bite America’s top spy in the ass. Perhaps now more people can see the wisdom and basic decency in allowing people some privacy, especially when it comes to sex.
Then again, the pussycat is out of the bag in the new age of easy, all-encompassing electronic surveillance. It just isn’t as simple to keep secrets as it used to be. As our narcissistic, exhibitionistic need to reveal ourselves combines with our demand for speedier, more convenient communications, so goes our privacy. High-achieving control freaks like Petraeus and “adventure junkies” like Broadwell tend to crave the loss of control, reveling in the erotic risks that make them feel like they’re flying—deliriously out-of-control. Like another Greek, Icarus, they soar higher and higher, galvanized by hubris and sheer excitement, oblivious as the sun melts the wax that holds their wings, and they fall into the sea.
Petraeus’ tumble from the heavens has stirred up a frankenstorm of factoids and speculations, spinning and spewing through the interwebs like rain, ravaged mementos, broken furniture, ripped lingerie and sludge, trashing the burnished reputations of the main players and churning the rest of our minds into a roiling sea of soap operatic, media-muddled mush.
The Petraeus Affair, along with its subsidiary erotic liaisons, inappropriate communications, “All In” pillow talks, sexy social-climbing Lebanese twins, mysterious Benghazi prisoners, a shirtless FBI agent, a nasty custody battle, a 28-cop motorcycle escort for a pirate festival and tens of thousands of emails—flirtatious, salacious, jealous and harassing—is a comedy of errors, romance, recklessness and ridiculousness. Better a comedy of foolhardy sex among consenting adults than a tragedy like Abu Ghraib, the most notorious military sex scandal of the Bush era. Nobody was killed directly because of the Petraeus Affair—unless you count the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians and American soldiers slaughtered over the course of two perma-wars. But that’s another story. Or is it?
The Petraeus superstorm of titillating information, most of it not very informative, is, of course, distracting so many of us (this writer included!) from real and very serious issues, such as the fact that America is still embroiled in these perma-wars, a deepening recession and a humanitarian crisis in Sandy’s wake, just to name a few of the more urgent problems on our plate. Then again, one of the reasons that the Petraeus Affair is so damn delicious is that most of the serious stuff on that plate is pretty unpalatable. It’s much yummier to munch out on junk info about spy sex, exhibitionistic agents and whether curvy Jill Kelley is hotter than svelte Paula Broadwell (not that we’re slut-shaming here, just fantasizing—wink, wink).
And the corporate media is right there, like street vendors at a car crash, selling all the juicy trash they can find on the man they idolized like Aries the god of war just the other day. From superhuman hero to subhuman laughing stock, what a difference an affair makes. The war-loving mainstream media—across the ideological board, from Sean Hannity to Jon Stewart—all fawned over Petraeus and his paramour Broadwell, as well as Marine General John R. Allen, the commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, he of the grim visage and the voluminous emails to the voluptuous Kelley.
These corporate journalists can’t tell when a love affair is “All In” their faces. Nor can they tell a war hero from a war criminal, which is a little more important to American society, not to mention the people of those countries we occupy under war zone conditions.
As Michael Hastings, known for his Rolling Stone expose of General Stanley McChrystal, wrote, “Most of the stories written about [Petraeus] fall under what we hacks in the media like to call ‘a blow job.’ Vanity Fair. The New Yorker. The New York Times. The Washington Post. Time. Newsweek. In total, all the profiles, stage-managed and controlled by the Pentagon’s multimillion dollar public relations apparatus, built up an unrealistic and superhuman myth around the general that, in the end, did not do Petraeus or the public any favors. Ironically, despite all the media fellating, our esteemed and sex-obsessed press somehow missed the actual blow job.”
This was the Petraeus Way. As Hastings points out, reality was never as important to the general as “perception,” or deception. You couldn’t get him to tell the truth if you waterboarded him. As Petraeus himself put it in his 1987 Princeton doctoral thesis, “What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters — more than what actually occurred.”
Are those the words of a hero, or a huckster selling ice to Eskimos—or, in the general’s case, two devastating and unwinnable wars to a war-weary public? And sell them he did, starting with two fanboy American presidents from different parties, then to hundreds of adoring congressmen and senators, and fanning out to the fawning, fellating corporate media who swallowed the congenial general’s load of lies about the “progress” and “success” of surges and ““counterinsurgency strategies” that were riddled with corruption, confusion and failure. Like a naïve wife who blinds herself to the signs of philandering in her hubby, the media didn’t want to acknowledge how their favorite general was pulling the desert camouflage wool over their eyes. And with Petraeus’ war lies, there’s not just lipstick on his collar, there’s blood on his hands.
Who benefited from his sales job? He certainly did. But he was also working for a boss, and that would not be his Commander-in-Chief. That would be the enormous overarching organization that another wartime general (rumored to have carried on an affair with his driver Kay Summersby in World War II England), Dwight D. Eisenhower, warned us about in his last speechas U.S. President, that “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry …the military industrial complex.” This rumbling, vastly expensive, inherently murderous monster of an MIC has kept these two losing wars going primarily for the purpose of keeping itself going—and growing. The newly empowered Surveillance State is now an integral part of the MIC.
As Ike said, “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” There is no doubt that Petraeus and, to a lesser extent, all military officers who are the least bit friendly, put sound byte-hungry journalists—into a trance that is as “alert and knowledgeable” as a sleepwalking junkie.
Like a besotted paramour afraid her swashbuckling lover will leave her if she questions his lies, the embedded media lapped up Petraeus’ PR for the MIC.
Remember when the press first began using the term “embedding” and everyone joked about sex? Turns out that embedding does lead to getting in bed together. Now the joke is on the American people because by “embedding” the compliant media, the MIC learned how to effectively seduce and control them.
To get back to the Petraeus myth of ancient Greece, imagine the MIC as this group of centaurs, drunk on power as they assault the wedding party. Now imagine our esteemed corporate journalists as the other wedding guests, feting and fellating these lying generals as heroes, supporting the centaurs on as they rape the bride and other female guests. We the People, brothers and sisters, are the female guests at the wedding and the MIC are the centaurs and they are raping us at our own wedding, as Eisenhower warned us.
Happily, that’s not how the Centauromachy myth ends. The other wedding guests, most prominently King Theseus, don’t coddle Petraeus and the centaurs; they fight them off. It’s just a myth to be sure, though its meaning resonates in our Petraeus Affair. But where is our wise King Theseus to save the wedding party from the marauding beasts of the MIC?