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Sexts and the CIA: get ready for the film, starring Russell Crowe as General Petraeus

The movie will be a blast.

The movie will be a blast. The Petraeus Affair has got everything: the sudden fall of a celebrated general, lethal terrorist attacks in Libya, the FBI versus the CIA, a scandalous extra-marital relationship, the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan, a cat fight. The plot is already laid out and is rapidly thickening with new cast members on an hourly basis in the form of General John Allen, a Florida socialite called Jill Kelley and the FBI agent who became so involved investigating the case that he began sending Kelley shirtless pictures of himself. John Grisham could not write this if he tried.

The question is, who will play whom? I can see Demi Moore as Paula Broadwell – Petraeus’s biographer, co-adulterer and an ex-soldier, but that might just be because of the worryingly persistent memory of GI Jane. There’ll be a fight across Hollywood for the part of Petraeus himself – a raft of inappropriately handsome actors will vie to play the scholarly, flawed general. I see it going to an over-earnest Russell Crowe, despite Tom Cruise’s best efforts and suitable side parting.

More problematic in cinematic terms is the central thread of the plot – the emails. Somehow emails don’t quite cut it for dramatic effect, lacking the romance of letters or the danger of hushed phone calls. Remember You’ve Got Mail? My affection for Tom Hanks movies knows no bounds but it was, to be brutal, a film of limited scope. Somehow, I can’t quite see the Petraeus-sneakily-tapping-away-at-his-laptop scenes quite working. But the emails are inescapable in this saga – even the subplot has them. Apparently 30,000 pages-worth were sent between Allen and Kelley. Thirty thousand pages; do these people not sleep?

I’ll be bad

Petraeus is hardly the first to have a high-profile, damaging affair. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton, John Prescott – they’ve all done it in their different ways. Prescott reads oddly at the end of that list. Somehow two-Jags can’t quite match up to a philandering, saxophone- playing president, a champion golfer with a taste for, well, anyone or a movie-star turned adulterous California governor. Like many things – elections, food, films –American scandals are higher-budget, super-sized and more glamorous than their British counterparts. It’s the difference between ER and Casualty, where Petraeus is the slick ERof public collapse, all rich soundtrack and fast-talking, and Prescott the low-fi Casualty when someone falls off a ladder and sprains their ankle.

Sometimes the only way to process such baffling news is with disrespectful flippancy. The reality is too sad and perplexing to face in earnest and the clichés too abundant to take seriously. This is tabloid fodder, yet involving people you’d think and hope might be above the normal course of red-top melodrama.

But then you have to remember that no one is ever above anything: the more above things they seem, the more likely they are to fall. That’s how tragedy works. And Petraeus is the biggest tragic cliché of all: a man in a supremely powerful position, who thanks his loyal and devoted wife of 38 years in public speeches, has reached the peak of a distinguished profession, is widely respected and has been spoken of as a future Republican presidential candidate. He has everything to lose – of course he’s going to have a career- ending affair.

The psychological analysis is obvious (and being made to the media by every US marriage counsellor in the land; this is gold-rush time for them). A military leader like Petraeus is by nature a risk-taker; he was strangely cut off from reality; he felt untouchable; his defences melted under the heat of flattery; he was away from home for long stretches and overworked. This is all rich terrain for infidelity. But the psychological analysis doesn’t work for everyone.

YouTube’s ever-eloquent commenters have their own version: “This man was a military genius and kept us safe for years, but some stupid ass women had to go ruin it for the entire country.” And: “Have you seen his wife? I thought she was his mother. I do not hold it against him at all. Paula’s a knock-out!”  Quoting YouTube commenters is gratuitous; they can always be relied on to say the most offensive thing imaginable. But they also expose one of the ways these scandals are often interpreted – as being all about the women.

Once an affair (at least an affair involving a major public figure) is discovered, the play-out tends to follow a similar pattern: the man makes a brief, humiliating but dignified apology and talks about “errors of judgement” as though he’d suffered a temporary and inexplicable brain freeze, rather than systematically and cleverly orchestrating a prolonged deception. And the women are turned into warring caricatures: the wife, painted pityingly as a long-suffering martyr, versus the mistress, a fiendish temptress and expert manipulator. People tend to forgive the man with a shrug – oh, men – while blaming the mistress for digging her “claws” in to her prey.

Supporting cast

It all comes back to the movie version, doesn’t it? To make sense of a story like this, the media needs heroes and villains, intrigue and plot. But whatever the political implications of this mess –which at the moment are still hazy at best – at the heart of it all are two people involved in a illicit liaison that happened for reasons we’ll never fully understand.

You never know why someone is driven to infidelity; why some marriages work and why others don’t. Revelations of infidelities are so frequent that you start to assume that everyone is at it, but they’re not – you just don’t tend to hear about the happy marriages so much. Nor is it only men who are unfaithful: it’s a symptom of the gender inequality in positions of leadership in public life that the cast of one famous man and two supporting women is the norm. The whole Petraeus affair is murky and disturbing for many more serious reasons but I can’t help thinking that one of them is the perpetuation of the stereotype of flawed leading man, victimised wife and scheming mistress. We’re better, and worse, than that.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture