Former defense secretary Robert Gates stopped bagging his leaves when he moved into a small Washington military enclave in 2007. His next-door neighbor was Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had a chef, a personal valet and - not lost on Gates - troops to tend his property.
Gates may have been the civilian leader of the world’s largest military, but his position did not come with household staff. So, he often joked, he disposed of his leaves by blowing them onto the chairman’s lawn.
“I was often jealous because he had four enlisted people helping him all the time,” Gates said in response to a question after a speech Thursday. He wryly complained to his wife that “Mullen’s got guys over there who are fixing meals for him, and I’m shoving something into the microwave. And I’m his boss.”
Of the many facts that have come to light in the scandal involving former CIA director David Petraeus, among the most curious was that during his days as a four-star general, he was once escorted by 28 police motorcycles as he traveled from his Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla. to socialite Jill Kelley’s mansion. Although most of his trips did not involve a presidential-size convoy, the scandal has prompted new scrutiny of the imperial trappings that come with a senior general’s lifestyle.
The commanders who lead the nation’s military services and those who oversee troops around the world enjoy an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire, including executive jets, palatial homes, drivers, security guards and aides to carry their bags, press their uniforms and track their schedules in 10-minute increments. Their food is prepared by gourmet chefs. If they want music with their dinner parties, their staff can summon a string quartet or a choir.
The elite regional commanders who preside over large swaths of the planet don’t have to settle for Gulfstream V jets. They each have a C-40, the military equivalent of a Boeing 737, some of which are configured with beds.
Since Petraeus’ fall, many have strained to understand how such a celebrated general could have behaved so badly. Some have speculated that an exhausting decade of war impaired his judgment. Others wondered if Petraeus was never the Boy Scout he appeared to be. But Gates, who still possesses a modest Kansan’s bemusement at Washington excess, has floated another theory.
“There is something about a sense of entitlement and of having great power that skews people’s judgment,” Gates said last week.
Among the Army’s general officer corps, there is little support for Gates’ hypothesis.
“I love the man. I am his biggest supporter. But I strongly disagree,” said retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who served as Gates’ senior military assistant. “I find it concerning that he and others are not focusing on the effect on our guys of fighting wars for 11 years. No one was at it longer than Petraeus.”
But other veteran commanders concurred with Gates.
David Barno, a retired three-star general who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan, warned in an interview that the environment in which the top brass lives has the potential “to become corrosive over time upon how they live their life.”
“You can become completely disconnected from the way people live in the regular world - and even from the modest lifestyle of others in the military,” Barno said. “When that happens, it’s not necessarily healthy either for the military or the country.”
Although American generals have long enjoyed many perks - in World War II and in Vietnam, some dined on china set atop linen tablecloths - the amenities afforded to today’s military leaders are more lavish than anyone else in government enjoys, save for the president.
The benefits have not generated much attention among a public that has long revered its generals as protectors of the nation and moral beacons. And no general has been revered more than Petraeus, a fact that Mullen remarked upon at his retirement ceremony.
He joked that a woman approached him at a dinner party, eyed his medals and asked him if he was somebody important.
“I’m the president’s top military adviser,” he replied.
“Oh my goodness, General Petraeus,” the woman said to Mullen. “I’m so sorry. I just didn’t recognize you.”
Petraeus cultivated his fame by grasping, before most of his comrades, how the narrative of modern warfare is shaped not just on the battlefield but among the chattering class back home. He invited book authors to accompany him, granted frequent interviews to journalists, fostered close relationships with Washington think tanks and embraced political leaders on both sides of the aisle.
When President George W. Bush needed a savior for the foundering war in Iraq, he turned to Petraeus, making him the frontman for the troop surge in Baghdad. In the first six months of 2007, Bush mentioned Petraeus’s name 150 times in speeches.
Petraeus did not disappoint. Violence dropped in Iraq after he became the top commander there. He returned home as a celebrity. In 2009, he was asked to flip the coin at the Super Bowl.
He became an A-list guest at Washington parties. His stardom, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a collective guilt among civilians disconnected from the conflicts all helped to raise the profile for his fellow generals. It wasn’t just Jill Kelley, the Tampa woman who cultivated close relationships with him and other generals, including Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, by throwing lavish parties at her million-dollar house. Hostesses around the nation delighted at the presence of commanders in full-dress uniforms at social events.
The adulation fit their lifestyle.
“Being a four-star commander in a combat theater is like being a combination of Bill Gates and Jay Z - with enormous firepower added,” said Thomas Ricks, the author of “The Generals,” a recently published history of American commanders since World War II.
Many of the gatherings have been genuinely altruistic; community and business leaders have pitched in to help raise money to support wounded troops and military families. But others, it seems, hoped a general or two sprinkled among canape-munching guests would bring elevated social status.
In some cases, the generals, who have spent much of their professional lives in cloistered military bubbles, have not employed the best judgment in cultivating relationships with those who enjoy the sparkle of stars on the shoulder. Allen exchanged hundreds - perhaps even thousands - of e-mails with Kelley over the past four years, a fact discovered in the FBI investigation into harassing messages sent by Petraeus’ former mistress and biographer, Paula Broadwell, to Kelley. The Defense Department is now investigating the messages Allen and Kelley exchanged.
Some retired generals have defended the benefits accorded to their active-duty brethren, noting that many of them work 18-hour days, six to seven days a week. They manage budgets that dwarf those of large multinational companies and are responsible for the lives of thousands of young men and women under their command.
Compared with today’s plutocrats, their pay is modest. In 2013, the base salary for a four-star general with at least 38 years of service will be almost $235,000, although federal personnel regulations limit their take-home pay to $179,700. Unlike top civilians in government, top generals also receive free housing and subsidies for food and uniforms. And when they retire, those who have served at least 40 years get an annual pension that is slightly more than active-duty base pay - this year it is $236,650.
Several generals noted that perks, such as planes, cars and staff aides, are constrained by hundreds of pages of rules designed to ensure that they are used only for government business.
But the frantic search for cuts to reduce the growth of government debt could soon put some of the four-star benefits at risk. When he was at the Pentagon, Gates wanted to trim some of the perks but ran into resistance. It was, he said, the “third rail” of the Defense Department.
“You don’t need a cadre of people at your beck and call in an age of austerity, unless you are a field commander in Iraq or Afghanistan,” a former top aide to Gates said on the condition of anonymity.
The travel practices of two theater commanders, which prompted Pentagon investigations this year, may further jeopardize the perks.
The former head of the U.S. Africa Command, Army Gen. William “Kip” Ward spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars for private travel, including using military vehicles to shuttle his wife on shopping trips and to a spa, according to a report by the Defense Department’s inspector general. The report detailed lengthy stays at lavish hotels for Ward, his wife and his staff members - he billed the government for a refueling stop overnight in Bermuda, where the couple stayed in a $750 suite - and the use of five-vehicle motorcades when he traveled in Washington. The report also said Ward often took longer-than-necessary business trips to the United States, resulting in “exponential” increases in costs.
The current top U.S. commander in Europe, Adm. James Stavridis, also came under the scrutiny of the inspector general for using a military jet to fly to the Burgundy region of France for a dinner organized by an international society of wine enthusiasts. Stavridis defended the trip as an opportunity to meet with French military and business leaders.
He was cleared of wrongdoing by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus earlier this month. Ward, however, was not so fortunate. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced last week that Ward would be demoted and forced to retire at a three-star rank. He also will have to repay the government $82,000, but he still will receive a $208,000-a-year pension.
Peter Feaver, a National Security Council official in the Bush administration, defended the generals’ need for perks and large staffs, noting that when they entertain foreign dignitaries they are bound by military standards of pageantry and protocol that don’t exist in the State Department.
“The military is trapped in an older cultural time warp,” Feaver said.
But he worried that the recent high-profile excesses could chip away at the military’s credibility. There’s a sentiment among the ranks that generals are out of touch, he said.
“This provides fuel for that kind of critique,” he said. “It can do damage to the institution.”