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Sex and the Modern Soldier

Just how bad is the military's woman problem?

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.

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By Other Means

Forward!

Time for some foreign policy change we can believe in.

It's time to think legacy. For the last four years, President Obama has had plenty of reasons to pull his punches: at first, he was a new and inexperienced president, relatively unversed in how to make Congress and the executive branch work, and he mostly avoided going out on limbs. Then it was time to start campaigning again, making him risk-averse for a different reason.

But Obama eked out a narrow victory on Tuesday -- narrow partly for reasons beyond his control (the ongoing global recession, for instance), but partly because the Democratic base was far less energized this time around. In 2008, candidate Barack Obama promised transformative politics, and millions of Americans believed he could deliver. After four years characterized mostly by centrism and half-measures, voters this year were distinctly less enthusiastic. This time around, no one expects transformation.

But paradoxically, President Obama is in many ways better positioned to deliver transformation now than he was in those heady days of early 2009. He's not a newbie anymore: his first-term struggles provided important lessons on everything from how to work with Congress to how to staff and structure his White House team. And just as important, Obama doesn't have to run for office again. He can -- and should -- devote his second term to building a legacy of which he can be proud.

Here are six foreign policy areas where he should focus his energies this time around.

1.      Break away from the "all terrorism all the time" approach to national security -- and specifically, impose some strategic discipline on drone strikes.

Obama came into office in 2008 a critic of the expansive "global war on terror" paradigm, which seemed to promise limitless war against a limitless and undefined set of enemies. But despite early efforts to disaggregate the terrorist threat, replacing the GWOT with a seemingly narrower war on al Qaeda and its associates, the Obama administration has in many ways expanded the war on terror. America's use of drone strikes and other targeted killings has increased dramatically, moving far beyond "hot battlefields" to Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and perhaps Mali and the Philippines as well. What's more, strikes seem to be targeting an ever-widening group of people: we're no longer just taking out terrorist masterminds who pose direct, imminent, and grave threats to the United States. Instead, we seem to have fallen into a common trap: we have a nifty tool, and we want to use it, so we're using it more and more, for less and less reason. We're going after suspects further and further down the terrorist food chain, who pose ever more attenuated threats.

As I've written in previous columns, these targeted killings raise serious rule of law concerns. They also raise serious strategic concerns. First, rule of law lapses have reputational costs, weakening our credibility with allies and enabling imitative behavior by unscrupulous regimes around the globe. Second, increasingly indiscriminate killings (or killings that appear indiscriminate) may well increase, rather than decrease, extremism and anti-American sentiment, increasing long-term security risks. Third, our fixation on taking out terrorists has real opportunity costs: every dollar and man-hour spent on hunting down mid-level al Qaeda sympathizers in Pakistan or Somalia is money and time that could be spent on dealing with other threats. Freed from the first-term need to pander to the electorate's most paranoid fears, Obama should undertake a rigorous and pragmatic cost-benefit analysis of U.S. counterterrorism programs.

Terrorism is not an existential threat to the United States. As Greg Jaffe noted in the Washington Post last week, global terrorism has killed fewer Americans in the last decade than falling furniture and televisions. Worldwide, the number of deaths caused by terrorism has never exceeded 13,000 a year -- and the number of deaths resulting from global terrorism was substantially higher in the early 1990s than it is today.

To use an Obama-esque phrase, "let me be clear": I'm not saying that Obama should ignore terrorism. Like global organized crime, it's a very serious problem -- and, in particular, the United States should continue to do everything possible to ensure that nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons stay out of the hands of terrorists, just as we seek to ensure that they stay out of the hands of rogue states. But it's time to stop viewing most of the world through a counter-terrorism lens. In his second term, Obama has a unique opportunity to scale back targeted killings, increase their transparency, and redirect limited human and financial resources towards graver long-term security threats.

2.      Stop fixating on Iran.

Speaking of overblown threats, President Obama also has an important opportunity to ratchet down the hysteria level over Iran. The nuclear genie left its bottle a long time ago. Instead of trying fruitlessly to lure it back in, we'd do better to focus on managing the consequences of a nuclear Iran. It's virtually inevitable that Iran will end up with a nuclear weapons capability, unless the United States or Israel takes direct military action. But a strike on Iran would, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said, be catastrophic -- probably a great deal more catastrophic than accepting a nuclear Iran. Obama should do everything possible to talk the Israelis off the ledge and should focus instead on creating incentives for Iran to be a responsible nuclear state. That's not an entirely unrealistic goal: even Ahmadinejad is not as crazy as he seems, and Iran is likely to remain a rational actor -- especially if the United States sets a good example by moving forward on our own pledges to reduce our nuclear arsenal.

3.      About those nukes...

As Joe Cirincione argued last week, Obama should make good on the promises he made in Prague in 2009. He needs to issue presidential guidance on the implementation of the 2010 Nuclear Policy Review, and continue reducing U.S. nuclear forces. He needs to reengage Russia on missile defense and further nuclear reductions, push for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and aggressively push forward on nuclear threat reduction programs to secure or destroy "loose nukes." If we want other states to refrain from the development and use of nuclear technologies, we need to show that we're willing to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

4.      Remember the forgotten continents.

It chagrins me to say that George W. Bush probably did more for development in Africa than Barack Obama has done. That should change. President Obama needs to renew our focus on building ties, increasing trade and supporting development and governance reform in Africa. Latin America could also use a little love. As Michael Shifter has argued, a sensible Latin America policy would require the United States to get serious about immigration reform and be open to rethinking the "prohibitionist approach to and criminalization of drug consumption." Those are tough issues to tackle politically -- but a second-term president is in a better position to take a few risks.

5.      Get serious about climate change and green energy.

Faced with congressional apathy and opposition, President Obama allowed his climate agenda to languish in his first term. But when it comes to significant long-term threats to the United States, climate change is way up there: the economic costs will be staggering, and climate change is also likely to cause instability and conflict in already vulnerable parts of the world. The devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy may increase the national will to take climate change seriously: while no one can claim that Sandy was "caused" by climate change, most scientists agree that climate change is likely to usher in an era of ever more powerful storms and ever less predictable weather. That's an opportunity to return climate change to the top of the national agenda, and Obama should seize it.

6.      Prepare for a world in which relative U.S. power is reduced.

Yes, I know we're all supposed to pretend that America is still a rising power, but the empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Our decline in power is both relative and absolute: in part, we're less powerful simply because other states -- many of them our allies and partners -- are gaining strength and stepping into leadership roles. That's a good thing, not a bad thing. Our power is also declining because of increasing global interconnectedness -- the United States is no longer the sole architect of its own destiny. That's not good or bad -- it's just a fact.

But we're also declining because our domestic political process is broken, our regulatory process is broken, and we've stopped investing in the basics: education, infrastructure, health, research. I won't recite all the usual statistics about diminishing life expectancy, higher infant and maternal mortality rates, and the appalling number of Americans who can't even find their own country on a map, but the evidence is there, and it's depressing.

Domestically, President Obama will have to struggle to turn things around on some of those issues -- the Affordable Care Act was a decent start -- but America's decline also has implications for our foreign policy. In a world so interconnected -- in which communication and transportation innovations have diminished the salience of state borders, new viruses (biological or cyber) can go global in days or weeks, and financial meltdowns can spread almost instantaneously -- the United States needs to invest in a robust and equitable system of international laws and institutions. Strong and autonomous states don't need international law as much as weak states...but we're getting weaker, and no one's autonomous anymore.

President Obama doesn't need to win any more elections. If he wants to help ensure a stable and prosperous future for the United States, he should push the nation to abandon our delusions of permanent superiority. We still have disproportionate wealth and power, but we're running out of time: we need to act now to create an international system that will still protect us as our power declines.

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