Posted by: 4pack | November 18, 2008

“Ideal Shape” Profile: Four-Star General David Petraeus, 56, Sets An Example For All Americans


“…P4 can do a hundred push-ups per minute. “I’ve personally only ever seen one person beat him in push-ups,”

 “…It’s a bloody hot morning in September, and it’s a Saturday, but that doesn’t mean much, because when you’re David Petraeus, the days are all the same: You work eighteen-plus hours, seven days a week, you pretend it’s not 130 degrees out, you put your fatigues on, and you go run the war.”

“…He likes to get in his 5.6-mile run when the temperature is only 100 degrees, instead of the 120-plus that comes later in the day. And he likes to drag people with him, too, mess with them a little…”

“…And the physique, even in the baggy camouflage: Let’s just say it would be impressive even if you didn’t know he’d shattered his pelvis (in a skydiving accident, when his parachute didn’t work) or been shot in the chest (when a soldier in his command accidentally tripped and his rifle discharged). Talk about shit happening…”

“…In any event, on this particular morning, he still manages to be out the palace door at the ungodly hour of five, when the only light in the sky is from bombs—i.e., incoming mortars—bursting in air. He likes to get in his 5.6-mile run when the temperature is only 100 degrees, instead of the 120-plus that comes later in the day. And he likes to drag people with him, too, mess with them a little. Hey, kid, think you can outrun a 56-year-old general? One of the many things you hear about David Petraeus—or “P4” (for Petraeus Four-Star), as the lowly troops call him-—is that few souls have ever been able to keep up with him on his run. And for good reason: He clocks six-and-a-half-minute miles, and he has no pity.

The only thing worse than getting dragged out for a run is having P4 ask you to do push-ups with him. He’ll point at some poor slob on his way to the cafeteria or something and, without warning, order him to drop and do a hundred! With the general. Basically, if you are one of the chosen ones, you are screwed. P4 can do a hundred push-ups per minute. “I’ve personally only ever seen one person beat him in push-ups,” says Colonel Steve Boylan, P4’s communications man, who travels with him everywhere, hands him his earplugs, speaks for him when necessary, but is a pretty decent guy. “It was a sergeant first class out on one of the battlefield circulations.” Hot out that day? “Not bad,” Colonel Steve says. “About 125 degrees.”

Today, after his run, Petraeus will be heading out on his final battlefield circulation as Commanding General of the war in Iraq. What this means, briefly: We will spend ten hours crammed into Ospreys, Black Hawks, and armored vehicles, which will fling us to various parts of Iraq, where we’ll trek across long stretches of desert so Petraeus can do his thing. He loves these battlefield circulations. He takes great pleasure in surprise-attacking his troops. Likes to check in on them, buck them up, see how the progress is going, ask them questions (“What have you learned?”) and thank them for their service to the country (“And tell your wife I said thank you, too”). He will also meet with an assortment of Iraqis—sheiks, mayors, border guards—mostly to assure them that he will still care, even when he’s gone. A few will look like they’re going to cry, shaking his hand for the last time. (“He’s like family,” an Iraqi general will tell me.) He’ll head out to remote installations, eat spaghetti and meatballs with Marines in a desert tent, sip tea with an Iraqi mayor as men with machine guns guard the door, and wander over to the Syrian border to check out the new X-ray machine.

And he will do all this without so much as a flak jacket. There is perhaps no riper target on earth than a four-star general in Iraq, but Petraeus often insists on the no-flak-jacket thing. It drives his security guys nuts. This morning at his daily Battle Update Assessment with several dozen U.S. and Iraqi leaders, he repeated his favorite mantra: “The best way to protect the people is to live with the people.” And you can’t really live with the people if you’re walking around in a Kevlar vest, now can you? His aides relented, of course.

A great many people have come around to Petraeus’s way of thinking. “He had a vision,” says Sergeant Major Marvin Hill, one of P4’s closest colleagues. He knew when he got here, says Hill, that the only way to win this war was to “live among the people.” That was his genius. As impolitic as the idea of nation building was at the time, Petraeus was able to change the attitudes—not only in Iraq, but back in Washington. He was always part general, part politician. And he knew in his gut that his strategy would work. “Because you can’t kill ’em all,” says Hill. “You can’t shoot your way out, you can’t kill your way out, of an insurgency. You just can’t. You have to find other kinds of ammunition, and it’s not always a bullet.”

It is still early morning when our first mode of transport—a V-22 Osprey, that freaky, $65 million blue bird that takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like a plane—is finally ready to take off. Everyone—his aides, a few bodyguards, the pilots, the gunner who hangs off the edge of the wide-open end of the aircraft with his .30-caliber machine gun—is harnessed in, helmets on, waiting for him. He crosses the tarmac, breezes in, gives a little wave, and takes a seat between the pilots up front, lest he miss anything on the flyover. And then we’re up, rather abruptly, and the general is strapped in and smiling. He keeps smiling as the Osprey hits 320 miles an hour and he gazes out the cockpit windows over the roiling mess he was sent here to fix. If the engine noise weren’t earth-shattering and we didn’t all have orange sponges in our ears, we might ask him why he’s smiling. But it’s almost unnecessary. When you’re with Petraeus, you have this weird feeling that everything is Just Fine and Dandy, even in a war. He has that effect on you.

He is sitting in his chair now, legs crossed, looking tempted to put his right boot on the coffee table but thinking better of it. In person he’s smaller than you’d think (officially five feet nine), but like most great men, he acts tall. On his lap is a little clipboard holding a sheet of paper with my name on top.

You got talking points for me?

“I do!” says Petraeus, who never stops looking you in the eye. “Here, see? What they do is, they put their hand on my back and they make my lips work.” He chuckles. “That’s why you can talk to Steve later and it’s just like talking to me!” Steve nods. Petraeus reaches over and pours me a coffee.

To be honest, I was a little worried when I walked in here that we’d end up doing another one of Petraeus’s “exit interviews.” Not that they’re not fascinating, not that he doesn’t have interesting things to say, but we got it already: The surge has mostly worked, he’ll never declare victory, he’ll leave the timetable stuff to the next president, he’s excited about his new job as head of CentCom, he can’t wait to get cracking in Afghanistan, etc.

He laughs when I bring up the exit interviews. “You could probably do them at this point,” he says.

Let’s just talk about you, then, I say. You know, personally.

“Okay!” he says.


“Sure. What’s your sign?”

Did General Petraeus just ask me what my sign is? Like an idiot, I tell him. Is he really into astrology?

He laughs, hard. “I don’t even know what mine is,” he says. “I’m only funning you.”

Colonel Steve pipes up. “That’s how the whole surge worked. It was astrology!”

“It’s late in the day here, you know?” says Petraeus.

For the next couple of hours, he puts the clipboard down and tries to explain how David Petraeus, who as a kid was known as Peaches—seriously, he was that sweet—turned out to be the right man at the right time in the wrong war.

He starts by talking about his father, Sixtus Petraeus, who passed away six months ago at the age of 92. Petraeus couldn’t even leave Iraq to bury him. (As he puts it, “Our soldiers make all the same sacrifices.”) Sixtus was a Dutch sea captain who came to the U.S. at the start of World War II, “when Holland was overrun. He was at sea, and they couldn’t go back to Rotterdam, so they went to New York.” He was “a stubborn, independent Dutchman” who was both extraordinarily proud of his only son and a strict disciplinarian who pushed him to the limit. “I was raised by the kind of father who if his son could do twenty pull-ups, he wanted you to do twenty-one. There were, you know, no excuses. I mean, there was a phrase he actually used: ‘Results, boy.’ ”

Sixtus settled in the town of Cornwall on Hudson, where David was born and raised—five miles from West Point. It seemed that everyone he came in contact with as a kid—his math teacher, his soccer coach, even his Sunday-school teacher—was either active-duty or retired military. He was in awe of these men and their calling, “the standards, the traditions, the…all of it,” he says. It was no surprise that he went to West Point, though his mother, a gentle soul who “was very much into literature and books” and would take her son on yearly pilgrimages to Walden Pond in Massachusetts, “to put yet another stone on Thoreau’s home site,” would have preferred that he “go study poetry or something like that.”

He was at West Point through the end of the Vietnam War, ’70 to ’74, which was, he admits, “sort of a cloistered existence. I mean, we followed what was going on. We got The New York Times every morning. But it was certainly not like being on a civilian campus. I mean, obviously, West Point was not the scene of demonstrations.”

Do you feel you missed out on anything?

“Well, we tried to make up for it on occasion.” He laughs. “You know, we all bought sports cars”—somehow, that’s not what I meant—“and, you know, did wild things at various times.”

Perhaps the “wildest” thing was when he ended up dating the daughter of the superintendent (who also happened to be a three-star, soon to be four-star general named William Knowlton) of West Point. Or “the Supe’s daughter,” as she was known. Knowlton was a man you didn’t want to mess with. “There were two types of cadets at West Point,” P4 says. “The majority would cross the street if they saw her coming, because nobody wants to be accused of trying to date the boss’s daughter. And then there was another subset of cadets who’d fall all over themselves to date the boss’s daughter.”

A testosterone-heavy voice on the tape intones “RENDEZVOUS WITH DESSSS-TINY…” but Petraeus begins his own narration for me. “Okay, this is the deployment,” he says. “We went over with, you know, eighteen, twenty thousand soldiers, 5,000 vehicles, 250 helicopters, thousands of containers.… That’s me [doing push-ups].… Here we’re in the camps out in the desert, getting ready to go.… That was a little incoming rocket attack.…”


  1. What was the name of the town in Friesland SIXTUS Petraeus was born? S

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