By Other Means

Sex and the Modern Soldier

Just how bad is the military's woman problem?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As I write this, the Petraeus saga, which morphed first into the Petraeus-Broadwell saga, and then into the Petraeus-Broadwell-Kelley saga, followed closely by the Petraeus-Broadwell-Kelley-Allen saga, is morphing into Phase 5, or maybe it’s Phase 6. Who can keep track? By now, I believe, it’s the Petraeus-Broadwell-Kelley-Allen-Evil Twin Natalie-Shirtless FBI Agent-Eric Cantor-Classified Documents story.

By the time you read this, the saga will have morphed into Phase 11 or 12, and it will no doubt have been revealed that Anthony Weiner was Jill Kelley’s college roommate before a series of harassing phone calls from a Lockheed Martin executive led him to take up residence instead in one of those fancy hotel rooms favored by disgraced Gen. Kip Ward. Prince Harry and the Waffle House guy will probably also turn out to be involved.

But let’s put schadenfreude briefly aside — who can possibly keep up with these high-society types, anyway? — and focus instead on the important question my mother asked me today, in a breathless early-morning call: 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?

Answering these questions in order, I can offer a definitive "sort of," "kind of, "maybe," and "very possibly."

First, adultery and related peccadilloes.

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 (not just because it may raise suspicions of homosexuality — for senior male officers in particular, a wife has historically been considered a must-have accessory, needed in her hostess role as much as in her role as companion). But ironically, the military’s very "pro-marriage" culture may lead to a higher incidence of divorce and 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. "[T]hese findings," the study concluded, "suggest that the military provides incentives to marry … but that once the servicemembers 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."

If some service members marry because it’s expected or rewarded rather than because they’ve found a compatible partner, those marriages are presumably more fragile before exit from the military as well as after. There’s no way to know for sure whether infidelity is more common in the military than in the civilian world, of course. Needless to say, adultery is one of those things people generally — no pun intended — lie about. But even if we leave aside the question of military marriages that should probably never have been entered into, it seems reasonable to suppose that adultery might be more common in the military than in 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. Consider David and Holly Petraeus, who reportedly moved 23 times over the course of 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 (UCMJ) — and people still lose their jobs over it. "Mere" adultery is generally not sufficient to get a service member in legal trouble, though. 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 UCMJ offers fairly wide latitude to commanders who believe that their subordinates have been up to no good, regardless of the form taken by the no-goodness. For officers, "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman" remains punishable under the UCMJ ("gentleman" has been generously defined to include ladies too). 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 service members. Will retired General Petraeus find himself in legal trouble? Probably not, unless a hue and cry over double standards forces the military to take action. Why should a retired four-star get away with conduct that could lead to a demotion, separation, or reduction in pay for a junior officer or enlisted soldier?

The Woman Problem

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 — the exception being certain combat jobs — women still make up only a small minority of all military personnel (about 15 percent) and a still-smaller minority of senior officers (no surprise, given that today’s senior women officers joined the military, by definition, in an era in which even fewer jobs were open to women).

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. Here again, no big surprise: The military remains an overwhelmingly male — and overwhelmingly macho — institution. Women are outnumbered and often rendered nearly invisible in a culture in which nearly all senior officers are male.

This extends to the home front, as well. In certain ways, the informal culture of military officers resembles the 1950s more than the 21st century. 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. One military friend of mine recalls a general telling junior officers — in a recent lecture at an official Army command training event — that they should actively discourage their wives from pursuing careers, because career women would be less supportive and flexible military wives. And though official 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 the proper pouring of tea and coffee.

Here’s something I worry about: 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.

All-purpose craziness, sleaze, and corruption?

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 service has its own creed, but the core values of each service are basically the same, and 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 General Petraeus and General 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 General Allen exchange risqué emails with Kelley? Maybe — but I don’t really care. As for General Petraeus, when a lonely late-middle-aged married man with a stressful job falls into bed (or under the desk) 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. Perhaps le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point — but 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? Why didn’t the fact that Kelley and her family were embroiled in multiple lawsuits alleging fraud and unpaid debt set off alarm bells for anyone at Centcom? Who anointed the 37-year-old Kelley as a Centcom "honorary ambassador," fostering relations between top Centcom officials and "Middle Eastern government officials"?

And, of course, what induced two of America’s highest-ranking generals to wade into a vicious custody case involving the child of Kelley’s twin sister, Natalie Khawam, sending character testimonials on Khawam’s behalf to a judge who had declared Khawam to be a "psychologically unstable" manufacturer of "sensational accusations … so numerous, so extraordinary, and … so distorted that they defy any common sense view of reality"?

Talk about conduct "of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces."

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. "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," one officer told me. "We’re being had. These guys have chests full of medals, and they preach to us about military values. But look at this — what the f*** are they doing?"

Does the military have a public image problem?

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. But there’s no guarantee that things will stay that way. It depends on the breadth and depth of the rot.

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 this week’s 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, fast. 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.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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