In a trying seven days for the military, David Petraeus has resigned over an affair, Gen. John Allen faces an investigation that threatens his career, and a pall has been cast over America's senior officer corps.
Yet for an institution as respected among the public as the military, perhaps it is telling that the reaction among both rank-and-file troops and senior officers is stunned surprise that revered leaders could make such mistakes. The culture that puts its leaders on such high pedestals may be the very thing that contributed to their downfall.
But military circles are also drawing a big distinction between Petraeus, a celebrity and a politician who was both loved for his brilliance and loathed for his success, and Allen, who is generally well-liked inside and outside the Marine Corps, even if his nerdy lack of flash masks a cold ambition. And, of course, Allen has not admitted to an affair.
In more than a dozen interviews with current and former officers and senior Pentagon civilians, reaction to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's decision to launch an investigation into the e-mail traffic between Allen and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley suggests that most insiders believe Allen will be exonerated. They say it is significant that Allen has said, at least through Pentagon officials, that there was no wrongdoing and that he was not having an affair with Kelley.
"Anything inappropriate from Allen -- beyond a couple of overly familiar emails -- would be truly shocking," said one former defense official.
What they do call into question is Allen's judgment for extensive e-mail exchanges, regardless of their content, with a woman who has been portrayed as an ambitious social climber with direct ties to questionable charities and business dealings. Why would someone who has worked so hard to maintain a squeaky-clean image in the military associate with someone like Kelley, they ask.
Regardless, some believe Panetta may well have overreacted in calling for the investigation. It could cost Allen his career by preventing him from become Supreme Allied Commander, Europe -- the job for which he had been nominated. Adm. Jim Stavridis, currently in that post, was himself investigated for bookkeeping improprieties. He was ultimately cleared, but the investigation may have prevented him from being named chief of naval operations, as many expected.
"I'm all for going after the brass, but this could turn out to be a real miscarriage," the official said of the Allen investigation.
"There is nobody straighter than John Allen," said one active-duty Army general, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the situation. "He may have said something flirtatiously in e-mails, but that is the southern gentleman," the officer said. "The investigation will show what it is."