11/12/2012 11:43 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Veterans Day in a Still Deeply Fractured America

A strange Veterans Day weekend in a still deeply fractured America, with the most prominent military figure of the era awash in scandal and the military experience itself increasingly separate from that of most Americans.

The last Veterans Day commemorated during combat operations in the Afghan War and the first to take place after a decade of war in Iraq arrived hard on the heels of the sudden shock resignation of the most prominent soldier of the era, David Petraeus.

The main proponent of our Iraq surge, and the big escalation in Afghanistan -- the latter move resulting in a slow-motion debacle -- is suddenly out as director of the CIA.

The often heated discussion of the Benghazi disaster was incredibly incomplete without discussion of the role of CIA and Petraeus. The US mission that was so fatefully attacked turns out to have been in large part a CIA base, and the Agency had a very large covert presence in the key North African city.

And now, suddenly, Petraeus is out, his resignation coming as the Benghazi disaster becomes an even more hysterical political football in the wake of President Barack Obama's rather comfortable reelection.

I've been saying for two months that Benghazi is a very serious problem for the Obama administration.

But the wild conspiracy theorizing, hinging on the demonizing view of Obama as some sort of anti-American Manchurian Candidate, is out of control.

With CIA having such a big presence in Benghazi, the failure to anticipate the attack on the U.S. mission looms large. Which would not make Petraeus a bad guy. None of this stuff is easy.

We need to determine what potential failures of intelligence, planning, resources, communication, and rapid response capability contributed to the Benghazi disaster. I'd hoped the vicious noise would subside after the election to the fringes where it belongs. Clearly, it has not. Now the theories will become even more convoluted with the departure of Petraeus, a sacred cow on the right, in the midst of a wild sex scandal that I don't much care about.

I had heard Petraeus wasn't all that happy as director of the CIA, was looking for an escape route, perhaps to the presidency of Princeton University, where he took his doctorate in international relations. Now he may be too hot.

Just as they effectively took former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, an appealing moderate conservative, off the 2012 game board by making him ambassador to China -- Huntsman predictably gained no traction in the Republican presidential primaries after that, despite a lot of media hype when he came back to enter the race -- Team Obama took GOP fave Petraeus out of the political mix by making him DCI (Director of Central Intelligence). Like Huntsman, out of sight and out of mind for an insular media while off in Beijing (and predictably radioactive to the Republican base after returning), the Obamans placed the media-happy general in a box by forcing a low profile on him.

While this odd episode around the country's most celebrated veteran plays out, veterans and military culture find themselves unusually extolled in America even as their experience becomes more and more divorced from the mainstream of national life.

The military is the most admired institution in American life. But the proportion of Americans with any military experience -- especially in the governing class -- becomes ever smaller.

In his Veterans Day message, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a former Army lieutenant, talks of winding down the wars and winding up veteran care: "The United States is now emerging from the longest continuous time of war in its history, and a new generation of veterans is returning home. They have carried a very heavy burden. They've dealt with multiple deployments, long separations from loved ones, and the tragic consequences of war. Some have sustained grievous, life-altering injuries, and they are dealing with significant challenges, both seen and unseen." ... "Over the next five years, more than one million service men and women will leave the armed services and transition back to civilian life."

As we transition away from vast and fateful adventures in the Islamic world of the Middle East and South Asia, pivoting to more normal interest-oriented postures in the Asia Pacific, the US military is clearly the most admired institution in American life. (An archive of my pieces on the pivot is here.) Even though those adventures of the past decade have been largely unsuccessful.

But there is a deep fracture of experience that has emerged between those who have served in the military and those who have not.

Today there is a smaller percentage of Americans in uniform during wartime than any time in over 200 years.

And increasingly the politicians making decisions on war have no military experience. It's easy to imagine that war is all about push-button gee-whiz. Except for all the evidence we have that it is still very nitty gritty, down and dirty stuff. And if you've never humped a pack and a weapon in a jungle, a desert, or at mile high-plus elevation, you don't have a fundamental understanding of what the point of the spear always ends up being about.

This can lead to very cavalier decision-making, as I believe we've seen in the past decade.

It might also, as the not unpredictable failure of the Afghan War sinks in and as the humiliation of Petraeus emerges, chip away at that hard-won and largely deserved reputation held in the post-9/11 era by the Armed Forces and the veterans who served in it.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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