David Petraeus would not have gone down in history as a great general, even if he had been able to keep his zipper zipped. Certainly not great enough for the retired Army four-star general and former commander of coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to merit appearing in a strategy game.
It is true that Petraeus appears in Call of Duty: Black Ops II as US Secretary of Defense in 2025. But he is there as contemporary political eye candy (and never mind that Petraeus is 60 today and would be 73 in 2025, making him the oldest SecDef in history. Then again, the man is legendary for his physical fitness, which perhaps explains his downfall).
No, I’m speaking of the avatars in strategy games like Civilization V, where you are asked to assume the persona of Napoleon, or Patton, or… Petraeus? Not likely. Petraeus earned — or constructed — a reputation as a military genius who came to the rescue of two floundering wars.
But his luster faded, not surprising for a man who had a reputation for advancing his career through adroit politics (such as marrying the daughter of the superintendent of West Point). With blood in the water from the Paula Broadwell scandal, critics are jumping on his record to claim that his performance (military, not sexual) was nothing spectacular.
Yet the real reason why Petraeus will not achieve strategy game greatness is that he fought the wrong war.
Iraq and Afghanistan were not just politically unpopular conflicts; they were also not the sort of glorious campaigns that earn commanders (though not the soldiers who died for them) a place in the history books. Caesar and Genghis Khan subdued kingdoms and created empires. Rommel thundered across the North African in lightning panzer offensives. Petraeus’s claim to fame is that he bribed tribal elders and negotiated with corrupt local politicians during a counterinsurgency, a grinding, thankless form of warfare that neither makes for stirring history nor exciting gaming.
Petraeus is not alone in this. Unfortunately for America’s post-World War II commanders, there haven’t been too many wars since 1945 that have offered glorious warfare in the grand sense that gamers like. Do you really want to play a game as William Westmoreland or Tommy Franks?
It is difficult to feel too sorry for Petraeus. Once the current scandal dies down, he will probably enjoy a lucrative future as a defence industry consultant or thinktank expert. But he will not be a video game icon.