When David Petraeus formally retired from the Army on Wednesday, it marked the end of more than just an acclaimed 37-year military career. Instead, it signaled a more far-reaching event: the twilight of the celebrity general.
Petraeus leaves the military as one of the best-known officers of the past 50 years and with a public profile higher than that of any recent predecessor other than Colin Powell. Like Powell, Petraeus faces unrelenting speculation about a future career in politics, potentially as a Republican presidential candidate. Publishers believe his future memoirs will fetch a multimillion-dollar advance, and those who know the academically-minded Petraeus well speak of him one day taking the helm of a prestigious university like Princeton, where he completed his doctorate.
(PICTURES: Gen. Petraeus Honored in Retirement Ceremony)
For the moment, Petraeus will remain in public service, though in a position with a far lower profile than his battlefield commands in Iraq and Afghanistan. He next week becomes the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a position he had privately lobbied for once it became clear that he would not be named the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In a recent interview, a close aide of Petraeus’s in Kabul said he expected the former general to use the CIA posting as a stepping-stone to higher-ranking civilian positions like secretary of State or national security advisor.
Petraeus is the last, at least for now, in a string of celebrity generals dating back to the Civil War, when Ulysses S. Grant became so well-known for his battlefield exploits that he was elected president shortly after retiring from the armed forces. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed a similar level of public renown during World War II and was the last prominent commander to win the White House, but the so-called “Good War” minted an array of other celebrity generals, from Douglas MacArthur to George Patton (the subject of an Academy Award-winning movie). More recently, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf won widespread public acclaim for his leadership during the first Gulf War; when combat ended, he even held a high-profile victory ceremony of sorts at Disney World.
Petraeus was one of several generals who burst into public consciousness during the decade of war which began with the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. They penned best-selling books, made regular appearances on television, and represented the public face of the military during an era where it enjoyed unprecedented support among both lawmakers on Capitol Hill and the general public.
Tommy Franks, for instance, was a four-star Army general who ran the military’s Central Command during the Iraq invasion. After his retirement, Franks wrote a memoir called “American Soldier” which debuted at the top of The New York Times best-seller list, pushing Bill Clinton’s autobiography out of the top slot. Richard Myers, a four-star Air Force general who served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, traded jokes with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show after he retired in September 2005. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has made multiple appearances on The Daily Show and took Stewart with him on a recent USO tour through Afghanistan.
But this present era of the celebrity general is clearly drawing to a close. The unpopular Iraq and Afghan wars are winding down, with majorities of the American public consistently telling pollsters that the conflicts were not worth their high human and financial cost. Defense spending, which doubled in the decade after Sept. 11, has leveled off and will begin to decline in coming years. And the staunchly pro-military sentiment of the past 10 years has been replaced by a willingness to cut the Pentagon's budget to focus on the nation’s yawning budget deficit.