The sudden departure of David Petraeus from the CIA tells us more about the state of our nation than it does about Gen. Petraeus. President Barack Obama should not have accepted his resignation.
We now seem to care more about the sex lives of our leaders than the real lives of our soldiers. We had years of failed generalship in Iraq, for example, yet left those commanders in place. Gen. Petraeus' departure again demonstrates we are strict about intimate behavior, but extraordinarily lax about professional incompetence.
The relationship between Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and his driver, Kay Summersby, during World War II was, by her later account, quite intimate. If Ike were judged by today's standard, he would have been sent home in disgrace from Europe and the war likely would have gone worse without his calm, determined and unifying presence. He was not fired. But dozens of other Army officers, including 16 division commanders in combat, were relieved of command during the war -- for professional reasons.
Matthew Ridgway was another great American general, serving in World War II and Korea. Over a few months in 1951, in one of the best but lesser-known episodes of American generalship, Ridgway turned around our fortunes in the Korean War. Ridgway also was fond of female companionship.
Our change in standards may have occurred in part because we as a nation no longer have much military experience and no longer prize military effectiveness, nor even are capable of judging it. In past wars, soldiers eager to survive would forgive their leaders a multitude of lapses if they believed those leaders knew their business. And if I had a loved one in a combat zone, I would care much more about the military skills of the people in charge than I would about their sexual lives.
Another reason we may hesitate to judge professional competence is that it is difficult in small, messy, unpopular wars to know just what victory looks like. Ironically, Gen. Petraeus was one of the few clear successes we've had among our recent top leaders, especially as overseer of "the surge" that began extricating the United States from Iraq in 2007.
Some friends in the military argue that a general who cannot keep his marriage vows cannot be trusted to keep his word. But we all fail in different ways throughout life. As Gen. Petraeus' revelations last week reminded us, he is human. We have asked much of him, sending him on three tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Yet when the time came for us to be generous in return, we were not.
Tom Ricks writes The Best Defense blog for Foreign Policy and is the author most recently of "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today."