In the wake of the scandal that has ensnared top military leaders in recent days — including the high-profile general who ended up leading the CIA — Peggy Noonan devotes her latest Wall Street Journal column to the growing prevalence of self-aggrandizement in American society.
It used to be that if you were big, you’d never tell people how big you were because that would be kind of classless, and small. In fact it would be a proof of smallness.
So don’t be showy. The big are modest.
There is the issue—small but indicative of something larger—of how members of the U.S. military present themselves, and the awe they consciously encourage in the public and among the political class. The other day on his Daily Beast blog, Andrew Sullivan posted a letter from a reader noting the way officers are now given and relentlessly wear on their dress uniforms ribbons, markers and awards for pretty much everything they do—what used to be called fruit salad. Mr. Sullivan posted two pictures we echo here, one of Gen. David Petraeus and one of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. This is the Eisenhower of D-Day, of the long slog through Europe in World War II. He didn’t seem to see the need to dress himself up and tell you what he’d done. Maybe he thought you knew. He didn’t wear all the honors to which he was entitled, though he could have used them to dazzle the masses if that had been what he was interested in.
Top brass sure is brassier than it used to be. And you have to wonder what that’s about. Where did the old culture of modesty go? Ulysses S. Grant wore four stars on his shoulder and nothing else on his uniform. And that was a fellow who’d earned a few medals.
Jump now to the woman who is the main focus in the Petraeus scandal, Paula Broadwell. She was a person of impressive achievement right from the start—high school valedictorian, West Point grad, master’s degrees, Army officer. But even that wasn’t enough ribbons. In YouTube videos she brags about her security clearance, her inside knowledge—”That’s still being vetted”—and the Ph.D. she’s working on. She calls herself a biographer, but biographers actually do something arduous—they write biographies.