WASHINGTON – As I write this, the Petraeus saga, which morphed into the Petraeus-Broadwell saga, then into the Petraeus-Broadwell-Kelley saga, followed closely by the Petraeus-Broadwell-Kelley-Allen saga, is morphing into Phase 5, or maybe Phase 6. Who can keep track?
But let’s put schadenfreude briefly aside and focus instead on the important question: What is up with these generals?
More specifically: Does the U.S. military have an adultery problem? A woman problem? A generic, all-purpose craziness, sleaze and corruption problem? A public-image problem?
In order, I can offer a definitive sort of, kind of, maybe and very possibly.
Officially, military culture tends to smile upon marriage and frown upon singleness. The military provides married personnel with benefits not available to single personnel, and even today, officers often feel that remaining unmarried is regarded as professionally suspect. But ironically, the military’s very pro-marriage culture may lead to a higher incidence of marital problems.
A recent Rand Corp. study found that compared with demographically matched civilians, military personnel are more likely to get married – but after leaving the military, veterans are more likely than non-veterans to get divorced. These findings, the study concluded, suggest that the military provides incentives to marry ... but that once the service-members return to civilian life and these incentives are absent, they suffer higher rates of marital dissolution than comparable civilians. This suggests that the military may encourage unions that would not normally be formalized into marriage in a civilian context, and are consequently more fragile upon exit from the military.
There’s no way to know for sure whether infidelity is more common in the military than the civilian world. Needless to say, adultery is one of those things people generally – no pun intended – lie about. But it seems reasonable to suppose adultery might be more common in the military than the civilian world.
Military careers can place great strain on marriages. Military families are frequently uprooted, and deployments can separate spouses by thousands of miles, year after year. David and Holly Petraeus reportedly moved 23 times through their marriage and were frequently separated by lengthy training periods and deployments. That would test any marriage.
Military personnel have – literally – a societally granted license to kill, at least in wartime, and it’s reasonable to expect those entrusted with such power to adhere to unusually high standards of behavior. Thus, adultery is still punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice – and people still lose their jobs over it. Mere adultery is generally not sufficient to get a service member in legal trouble. That kicks in only if there’s evidence that the adulterous conduct was to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces or was of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces. In other words, if no one’s making much of a fuss about it and adultery is the only form of misconduct alleged, no one’s likely to be punished. But the risk is always there.
Of course, a wide range of other conduct can also be prejudicial to good order and discipline or likely to bring discredit upon the armed forces, and the justice code offers fairly wide latitude to commanders who believe that their subordinates have been up to no good. Conduct unbecoming an officer remains punishable under the UCMJ. How often these UCMJ provisions are used to go after sexual indiscretions is unknown, as the military does not keep easily accessible records of such allegations or case dispositions.
Even retired military personnel are subject to the UCMJ, though the military rarely takes the trouble to go after retired members.
It would be fair to say that the military still has something of a woman problem. Although most military jobs are now open to women, they still make up only a small minority of all military personnel (about 15 percent) and a still-smaller minority of senior officers.
The military remains plagued by allegations of sexual harassment and assault, and a number of studies by the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs have concluded that women in the military face higher rates of sexual assault than do civilian women. No big surprise: The military remains overwhelmingly male – and overwhelmingly macho. Women are outnumbered and often rendered nearly invisible. This extends to the home front, as well. Military life isn’t just hard on marriage – it’s also hard on the careers of the (mostly female) civilian spouses of military personnel. Rising up the career ladder isn’t easy when you move from one military base to another every few years. And though publications now speak of officers’ spouses rather than wives, the military still produces etiquette guides for spouses, with a rather gendered focus on appropriate forms of address at social functions and proper pouring of coffee.
Will the fallout from the Petraeus scandal make it even tougher for military women to rise to senior rank? In the military as in the civilian world, career advancement often has as much to do with informal mentoring relationships as with formal education or qualifications. No one bats an eye when the (male) boss goes out running or drinking with his (male) subordinates, but post-Petraeus, how many male senior officers will do the same with female subordinates? Not a lot – and though such risk-aversion may reduce any appearance of impropriety, it will also reduce the odds that women will get the crucial mentoring that is provided so freely to their male colleagues.
Most soldiers I know do their best to live up to the Army values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. Every day, most of the roughly 2.5 million men – and women – in the military try their best to live up to them.
Needless to say, however, these values don’t appear to have been particularly exemplified by the alleged recent behavior of Petraeus and Gen. John Allen. And it’s not the marital infidelity – acknowledged or alleged – that bothers me. I’m willing to write that off to human frailty. Did Allen exchange risqué emails with Jill Kelley? Maybe – but I don’t really care. As for Petraeus, when a lonely late-middle-aged married man with a stressful job falls into bed with an attractive and adoring younger woman, it’s not excusable, perhaps, but it’s certainly understandable – and really none of the country’s business.
It’s the emerging story of the all-too cozy relationship between Tampa’s nouveau riche and the top brass at Centcom that makes me feel less charitable. Why were Petraeus and Allen spending all their free time at lavish parties hosted by a rich Tampa socialite? Who told Kelley it was fine to declare herself the social liaison to Centcom?
Needless to say, no one’s sure yet what’s true and what isn’t, and what more lies hidden under various carpets and rocks. But enough has already emerged to raise serious questions about the ethics and judgment of several top officials. Was there actual corruption, nepotism, and impropriety? Unclear – but there was unquestionably an appearance of impropriety, and we should expect better of America’s most decorated military officers.
Service members sure expect better of them. I’ve been asking around among military friends, and all I hear is shock, disgust and a sense of betrayal.
Whatever the reaction within the military community, will these revelations taint the military’s public image? Since the 9/11 attacks, the military has become the most trusted institution in America. Indeed, Americans have put the military on such a high pedestal that it’s considered near sacrilege for civilians to offer any criticism of the military.
If the Petraeus-Broadwell-Kelley-Allen business appears to be an aberration, Americans will forgive and forget: After two decades of war, most people are willing to cut the military some slack.
But if the revelations turn out to be the tip of the iceberg – if whistle-blowers, media probes and congressional investigations produce a rash of similar stories involving other senior military figures – the public’s patience may wear thin, quickly. Being America’s most trusted institution won’t help the military much then: We’re more appalled by those who betray our trust than by the bad behavior of those we never trusted in the first place. Sex abuse scandals in the Catholic clergy are a case in point.
The higher they are, the harder they fall.