The Tragedy of John Allen

Do we ask too much of our leaders?


Daniel Klaidman explores “The Tragedy of John Allen & the Petraeus Scandal.”

Sometime this winter, sitting in his hooch in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen was reduced to calculating the simple, inescapable math of wartime separation. He’d been away from his wife and two daughters for more than 50 of the previous 72 months, most of it in war zones. According to an Allen aide, he hadn’t taken a vacation with his wife since their two daughters, now grown, were children. In the previous 19 months, as the U.S. commander of the war in Afghanistan, the only home leave he’d taken was to return to Washington for strategy meetings. Instead of relaxing with his family, he spent the evenings cramming for congressional hearings.

Through it all, Kathy Allen, his bride of 35 years, had been the ever-dutiful military wife. But what most could not see from the outside was a more private and painful dimension of her sacrifice. The Allens lost all three of their surviving parents between 2010 and 2012. Both of Kathy’s parents died in 2010. She bore the weight of losing her mother and father while her husband was away. When Allen’s mother was dying last year, the aide said, she shouldered the burden for her husband, shielding him from the full details of her condition so he could lead the war effort in Afghanistan unencumbered by personal preoccupations. Finally, last August she called her husband in Afghanistan to tell him that his mother had died.Meanwhile, Kathy was suffering from a series of chronic illnesses, including an auto-immune disorder. In recent years, Allen had offered to retire from the military—to “drop his letter,” as he put it—should she be overwhelmed. Kathy always said no, soldiering on with little complaint. She has been a “weary stoic,” says a friend of the family who didn’t want to be named discussing their private affairs.


Yet last November, just as he was winding down his tour in Afghanistan, Allen became embroiled in the sex scandal that led to the downfall of CIA Director David Petraeus. The news had broken while he was back in Washington awaiting Senate confirmation for his next assignment: Supreme Allied Commander Europe, known colloquially as SACEUR. Instead of a smooth transition to one of the military’s most prestigious posts, Allen had become the subject of a full-blown Washington media frenzy.

Petraeus had resigned after it was discovered that he was having an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. But by then investigators had uncovered a cache of personal emails between Allen and Jill Kelley, a Florida socialite whom Broadwell saw as a rival for Petraeus’s affection. One knowledgeable source recently described the emails to Newsweek as “flirty but unconsummated.” Allen denied that he had committed adultery or that there was anything inappropriate about the exchanges. He even let it be known that he had taken precautions never to be alone with Kelley. But bureaucratic and political realities in Washington demanded an investigation, placing Allen under a cloud of suspicion. A source close to the family says the Allens were devastated by the tabloid treatment in the press, including false reports that the email exchanges were the digital equivalent of phone sex.


When he returned to Washington last month, even his closest aides believed he might still accept his promotion. But in the weeks leading up to his decision, Kathy’s health had taken a dramatic turn for the worse, including multiple emergency-room visits, likely brought on by stress. So at age 59, after a brilliant 41-year career in the Marines, he decided to hang up his boots. After announcing his retirement, he told The Washington Post‘s Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Right now I’ve just got to get [Kathy] well. It’s time to take care of my family.” A spokesman for Allen, Maj. David Nevers, portrayed Kathy’s health as the main factor in Allen’s decision, though he also conceded that “the investigation took a toll.”

Klaidman argues that “we have continued to hold our military officials to a much higher standard of personal conduct—even as the demands we place on them have grown ever more grueling and extreme” than we do our elected officials. That’s certainly true, although I’m actually fine with that. The David Vitters of the world are accountable to their constituencies; our general and flag officers are part of a profession with honor as its core value.

Nor am I persuaded by Klaidman’s lament that, “if we don’t change our standards, won’t the inevitable result be more meaningless scandals—and more wasted careers?” Maybe. But, as valuable as Petraeus and Allen have been in their nation’s service, it’s not as if we lack for talented men behind them. John Brennan should be an outstanding CIA director and Joe Dunford a fine SACEUR.

To me, the “tragedy” of Allen and Petraeus isn’t so much that their careers have been derailed; that’s truly a shame but the qualities that got them to their previous exalted perches will enable them to bounce back. Rather, it’s that the price of greatness seems to have been sacrificing their families.

In the particular case of generals running wars, it’s a reasonable trade-off. For those two years, the tens of thousands of troopers whose lives have been entrusted to their command are in fact more important than their wives and children. But we essentially demand that level of sacrifice of all our senior officers and, to a lesser extent, the entire force. That’s the nature of being on a constant war footing for over a decade.

While not exactly the same thing, we demand the same sort of sacrifice of leaders in all walks of life.  Anne-Marie Slaughter set off a months-long conversation about balancing career and family demands with her “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” cover story in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. While running the State Department’s policy shop doesn’t carry the same burdens as running a war, it nonetheless demands roughly the same work schedule. So does being a Fortune 500 CEO.  For that matter, so does being a head football coach in the NFL or the major college level.

Through a combination of external pressures and self-driven passion to excel, 18-hour days, working weekends, skipping vacations, and otherwise making work the center of one’s existence is the norm at the top of many industries. In most of them, it’s also the price of getting to the top.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Through a combination of external pressures and self-driven passion to excel, 18-hour days, working weekends, skipping vacations, and otherwise making work the center of one’s existence are the norm at the top of many industries. In most of them, it’s also the price of getting to the top.

    Which is why it never even occurred to me to try to “make it to the top.” (top of what? Don’t know.) Family is what it was all about. Without that, the rest meant nothing

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Marital fidelity is too much to expect? Then he should forswear love, seize the ring, and pursue power to the exclusion of everything else in life.

    IMO the problem alluded to here:

    Klaidman argues that “we have continued to hold our military officials to a much higher standard of personal conduct—even as the demands we place on them have grown ever more grueling and extreme” than we do our elected officials

    is that we should hold elected officials to much higher standards of behavior.

  3. @Dave Schuler:

    Except the problem here is that Allen, apparently, didn’t engage in anything approaching marital infidelity.He merely got caught up in the media spectacle surrounding the Petraeus affair.

  4. Ben Wolf says:

    John Brennan should be an outstanding CIA director . . .

    Because he was an architect of the Bush torture regimen, or due to his reputation in Washington as a professional sycophant? Or is it that powerful people approve of him? Exactly where does this man’s competence stand out?

    Furthermore holding military professionals to a higher standard isn’t really the problem here, it’s the national surveillance state monitoring everyone’s communications. We shouldn’t know about Petraeus’ and Allen’s indiscretions because they shouldn’t be anyone’s business.

  5. Tsar Nicholas says:

    You know what’s amazing about media liberals such as this Klaidman fellow? The cocoons in which they reside are so thick, the dearth of actual experience so stark, they simply can’t self-edit. Not even one iota. The same holds true for their editors.

    With that article Klaidman and The Daily Beast (whatever that is) expended an enormous number of pixels explaining, duh, that career military officers who reach flag rank make extreme sacrifices and are held to very high standards of conduct.

    For his next opus Klaidman is planning a hard hitting expose uncovering that water is wet and ice is cold.

  6. edmondo says:

    So he had time to write “flirty emails” to some married Florida “socialite” but had no time to find out the true medical condition of his mother and wife of 35 years? Yeah, he’s a real martyr.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: Marital fidelity is harder to achieve if you never see your wife.

    @edmondo: It’s not a matter of time, it’s one of distraction. He had enough on his plate without the burdens of dealing with those issues. Which his wife largely shielded him from of her own volition, if the account is correct. “Flirty emails,” by contrast, are likely a welcome respite—a safety valve.

  8. Me Me Me says:

    @edmondo: What edmondo said, 100X over. Allen made a series of bad/selfish choices. I’m not wasting a moment of pity on him.

  9. @Me Me Me:

    So sending email is equivalent to having a physical affair a la Petraeus?

    I’m not saying Allen is a saint here. There are no saints. But, it strikes me that he and his family got unfairly dragged into a story that they weren’t really a part of

  10. James Joyner says:

    @Me Me Me: As I note in the piece, we hold generals to a very high standard and I’m fine with that. There are others behind him to take the torch.

    My point is that 40 years of these demands take a hell of a toll. I’m not sure it’s worth it.

  11. Me Me Me says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I don’t care about his emailing habits. I care about him choosing to blow off his family for years and then you people asking me to feel sorry for him.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @Ben Wolf: I’m not making a judgment as to Brennan’s policy preferences; they’re those of the elected president, who appointed him and can fire him at will. I’m just saying that Brennan has the skillset to do the job: He’s incredibly smart and has the right experience for the post. Moreso on the last front than either Petraeus or Panetta, frankly.

  13. Pharoah Narim says:

    Pretty much par for the course for this level of Senior Leader. Unfortunately it’s an unnecessary, self-imposed, cultural cost imposed to make it “to the top” (I use quotes because I regret this corporate mentality that has poisoned what was designed to be an altruistic pursuit of excellence in the profession of arms). The bottom line is this: If you as a leader haven’t trained (or empowerd) your subordinates to handle many of the details of the care and feeding of the mission–enough to tend to the only legacy that will outlive or even care when you’re gone…i.e family–you have in fact failed as a leader of military personnel.

    The boss always sets the tone–if he/she believes he/she is indispensable and behaves as such–most of those under their command will also do the same. Frankly, there are only one or two military minds in any conflict that actually ARE indispensable to the mission. Allen (and Patraeus for that matter) were not among those minds. Patraeus only having made some minor updates to counter-insurgent strategy that was outlined in WWII. At any rate, these stories always pain me to read as the guy that’s “all in” finds out at the end of the road that the bus keeps moving as if you were never on it the minute your retirement party is over.

    The only legacy that lasts is that of the family and the memories you have of raising them–its not something that can be done post-retirement as kids are adults and have new lives and spouses now want to do something with their lives since the constant moving is over. This is a classic case of a sense of duty and service gone too far. The outcome in Afghanistan was sealed in 2003 when we didn’t get the job done then. I’d have expected anyone running the war there to understand this and simply manage the stalemate–until Congress and the President have their fill of treading water and pull out.

  14. stonetools says:

    The job of generals is to win wars, not be saints.
    I wonder-could Generals Grant, Sherman, Eisenhower, Patton, and Macarthur survive the kind of scrutiny we give to generals nowadays?
    Actually, I don’t wonder.

    Grant(drinking problem)
    Sherman (depression )
    Eisenhower (Infidelity)
    Patton (slapping shell shocked soldier)

    Would have all washed out of today’s military. Let’s not even get into Julius Caesar- maybe the greatest general ever, but a serial philanderer.
    Once again, generals are there to win wars. Let’s get back to basics.

  15. beth says:

    Through a combination of external pressures and self-driven passion to excel, 18-hour days, working weekends, skipping vacations, and otherwise making work the center of one’s existence are the norm at the top of many industries. In most of them, it’s also the price of getting to the top.

    It’s also the price of being on the bottom too. There are far too many people in this country having to work two or more jobs, giving up precious family time. They know they are one hospital visit or car repair away from not making the rent this month.

    It doesn’t seem like any income bracket is immune to this – do we ask too much of workers overall in this country?

  16. gVOR08 says:

    If there’s a guilty party here, it’s the press, aided and abetted by their audience. It’s a lot easier to go thru someone’s email looking for something salacious than it is to dig into the details of Afghanistan policy. And sex sells. They’ll get more readers with rumor mongering than with thoughtful policy analysis.

    I have some fondness for a press that passed up reporting on FDR’s disability and Eisenhower’s driver.

  17. stonetools says:

    Actually, what this proves is that we are not truly at war. If we were, nobody would give a flying f&*k about Allen and Petreaus’s pecadillos, if they even got reported on. The entire focus would be on whether they were defeating our enemies.

  18. bill says:

    i thought clinton made this stuff irrelevant- or is it just for weak, left leaning types? maybe allen realized that he’d spent his entire life abroad and it’s just not worth it anymore?
    just go be a consultant and enjoy what’s left of your life. and thank you btw!

  19. Argon says:

    @James Joyner:

    Marital fidelity is harder to achieve if you never see your wife.

    B.S. People can take matters into their ‘own hands’ (if you catch the euphemism) without cheating on their wives, just like the rest of us mere mortals do. If you want to fool around, man-up and confront it head-on: divorce, get pre-approval from your wife, or don’t get married in the first place. It’s also an ethics and national security issue: Do not put yourself in a situation where you can be blackmailed and compromised (Oops, I forgot…. We’re talking about career climbers. Many are already compromised by their ambitions).

  20. al-Ameda says:

    In no way do I think John Allen was treated fairly, or in proportion to what he was perceived to be ‘guilty’ of. When are we (collectively as a culture, a society) going to grow up?

  21. @stonetools:

    Good points, but it is worth noting that, at least temporarily, Patton was disciplined for the slapping incident. He didn’t have a command for 11 months, lost out to Omar Bradley for the command of the US First Army, and his Third Army didn’t get to Normandy until about a month after the landings.

  22. 11B40 says:


    Bathos becomes thee. I love when you wallow in it. So noble, so compassionate.

    Forward !!!

  23. anjin-san says:

    i thought clinton made this stuff irrelevant

    Yes bill, Clinton was the first powerful man in history ever to be unfaithful to his wife and emerge largely unscathed. Thanks for your contribution.

  24. stonetools says:

    @James Joyner:

    As I note in the piece, we hold generals to a very high standard and I’m fine with that. There are others behind him to take the torch

    I think we should hold them to a very high standard of war fighting.
    Marital fidelity, not so much.

  25. stonetools says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    True. Stand corrected. What’s likely is that in today’s military, he would simply be cashiered. There is even an argument that he should have been cashiered. I would have preferred for him to be cashiered for abusing a shell shocked soldier-which is at least combat-related- rather than something like marital infidelity.

  26. gVOR08 says:

    @stonetools: @Doug Mataconis: I’ve been reading Thomas Ricks’ The Generals. Good read. Haven’t gotten to the Petraeus chapter yet, just getting into Vietnam. Ricks’ thesis is that generals don’t get fired anymore, and as a result they’re not as good as WWII generals, when Marshall and Eisenhower fired generals routinely. They’ve become like doctors, very difficult to get rid of them for incompetence, but a little hanky panky and they’re gone.

    Patton wasn’t fired for the slapping incidents because Eisenhower regarded him, correctly, as an effective combat commander. And pretty much nobody got cashiered. They got reassigned. Sometimes to quiet commands where they faded away until retirement or resignation. Sometimes to other assignments where they successfully came back, Terry Allen for instance.

  27. Davebo says:

    While I’m sympathetic I think you missed a lot of the issue James.

    When his in laws were dying all he had to do is say “I need to spend some time at home” and he’d have been on a G-5 within twenty four hours and I seriously doubt anyone would have batted an eye or that such a decision would have affected his career.

    He spent 50 of 72 months out of the country because he chose to and I don’t for a moment believe he had no idea what was going on back at the home front. He could have attended strategy meetings in DC and then flown home for two weeks, a month or however long it would take to assess the situation at home, get beyond his wife’s “protection” and make a decision about his families situation but he chose not too.

    His story is indeed sad but it’s entirely one of his own creation based on his own priorities. The only sympathetic character I see in this story is his wife. And even in her case I’d like to think that my wife would tell me to get the hell home and help me deal with this crap.

    So perhaps the good general should take the time honored test to determine if he is indeed irreplaceable. Take a glass of water. Stick your finger in it. Remove your finger. Notice the hole you left behind.

    If his command really couldn’t function without his incredible devotion to it then he did a lousy job setting up his command.

  28. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Pharoah Narim: And yet, IIRC, the guy from James’ team who was running for President in 2008 was willing to keep us in Iraq for “a thousand years.” No wonder James is so loyal to the party. Their leadership has such a keen sense of where our values lie.

  29. James Joyner says:

    @Just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker: McCain was wrong on much about Iraq but right on that narrow point. His argument was simply that it didn’t matter how long we stayed in Iraq if we weren’t fighting. He was talking about a post-1953-style Korea presence, not a sustained war footing.

  30. Davebo says:

    His argument was simply that it didn’t matter how long we stayed in Iraq if we weren’t fighting were lining the pockets of his primary constituency.

    A kind person would say you’re just naive James.

  31. Go Broncos says:

    It takes many, many years to build a fine military leader. These leaders are charged with responsibility far greater than the average American will ever know, or conceive of. Leadership takes tremendous sacrifice and courage. I can assure you that General Allen does not want your sympathy. He might be pleased to know however, that there are some Americans who appreciate that there are those rare few who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the many who will not sacrifice anything, for anyone, other than themselves, ever. I’m sure many could rattle off a list of more famous, or more infamous military professionals. But those kinds of accolades are not what drive a man like Allen. Taking care of his soldiers, trying to make a difference for future generations, spending America’s resources as wisely as possible, improving conditions for the people of the nation where you are waging battle are examples of the kinds of things great leaders try to achieve. General Allen has worked to do those things. And I can assure you, General Allen’s wife and family understand with crystal clarity the sacrifices he and they themselves have made. If asked to do it all over again, even knowing the eventual outcome, they would say, perhaps begrudgingly, but convincingly “yes”. Why? It is simply that they understand the why, as much as the what. There is a sense of pride in answering a calling that is greater than oneself. Those of us who have navigated long military careers, with the support of our loved ones understand. The rest can line the streets on Memorial Day and judge the parade. Some efforts will always be more successful than others. Unfortunately, some endeavors are doomed to failure. Great leaders learn from mistakes and failures, as much as they do successes. General Allen was by all historical standards, an overwhelming success as a leader of American Warriors. But let’s not respect his sacrifice or his successes. Let’s find a scab, from a sore that doesn’t seem to actually exist. Yes, let’s pick at that. John Allen is no Sad Sam Damon, but there are definitely a few similarities.