If you’ve never read a profile of Gen. Petraeus and you don’t mind really purple, sycophantic prose — “[W]hen Petraeus tests himself, he usually wins” is a line that survived the editing process — then by all means check out Mark Bowden’s thing in Vanity Fair. But that’s not going to describe anyone who reads this blog. And is anyone who’s unfamiliar with Petraeus going to read a jillion words on him in Vanity Fair?

If you maybe have heard of David Petraeus, Bowden’s piece, very uncharacteristically — the guy is an immensely talented journalist, “Smacky Face” or no Smacky Face — is not going to teach you anything. And if you’ve read The Gamble, you maybe aren’t going to want to bother finishing the piece. Bowden could’ve done a much better job of saying “as first reported by Tom Ricks” or “as The Gamble details” or some such. He didn’t plagarize a word and I’m not saying he did. There’s just a whole lot of clipjob in here. For instance:

Petraeus does not talk easily about this aspect of the Iraq experience. He is not inclined to tell stories, particularly about himself. But asked to reflect on those hard months, he immediately invokes something he once read about Ulysses S. Grant.

And then the next graf is the Shiloh “Lick ‘em tomorrow” story that you can read Petraeus referencing in lots of places, most notably page 273 of the hardcover edition of The Gamble! But I forgot, he “does not talk easily” about that stuff. I also love how Petraeus begins the anecdote, “It was at Shiloh, I think…” Yeah, he’s not so sure.

Lord knows I’ve written too sycophantically about the guy. (“Petraeus is no stranger to either difficulty or realism…” Oy.) I kind of like the balance I struck in this piece, published the week before the 2007 Iraq testimony, but I don’t deny that I’ve missed my skepticism/fairness footing when dealing with Petraeus, because Petraeus really is an impressive figure and those kinds of people pose problems for the institutionally oppositional culture of journalism. So I can’t fairly criticize Bowden for being too credulous with Petraeus without being a massive hypocrite. But dude: you can find a way to attribute stuff other reporters had first without interrupting the melody and the rhythm of your prose. Hard is not hopeless.