The election’s over. There’s not much now to engage the national airwaves, and likely won’t be, until the politicians do a Thelma and Louise plunge, driving the economy off the fiscal cliff, around the end of the year. The federal government, operating like a junkie who has set a date certain for cold turkey, has promised itself it will quit its spending without taxation addiction (or at least initiate a step-down, methadone-like program) sometime around the first of the year. It will need to enhance the revenue stream to do so (i.e., raise taxes) or discretionary spending will be cut, not least being a significant reduction in defense outlays. The military and industrial complex shakes in its boots at the prospect, but the Petraeus, Broadwell, Allen and Kelley affair should pretty much clear up any confusion as to whether the republic will be detrimentally impacted by a cut in defense spending.
In case you’ve not heard, the former Army commander in Afghanistan, David Petraeus, who had recently been appointed CIA director, resigned the directorate last week after news of his affair with Paula Broadwell became public. General John Allen, who succeeded Petraeus as commander in Afghanistan, has been linked to Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, the woman responsible for reporting threatening e-mails from Broadwell to the FBI, which caused the original investigation of Broadwell, which led to the Petraeus resignation. Kelley, the wife of a famous surgeon (at least, apparently, in Tampa), was a friend of Petraeus’ wife, but now appears to have been carrying on an affair with General Allen. It does not appear that any of the actors in this melodrama were quite aware of how silly it would ultimately make them all look. Fourteen year old girls behave more reasonably in society, not even calibrating for their inability to control hormonal impulses. (A relatively straightforward article on the affair can be found here.)
But, if the republic faced even one significant military threat, the republic would simply be looking the other way at the sexual peccadilloes of its senior military and intelligence officers. Demanding high-minded sexual morality, or really any morality representing a cultural tic, of its proven leadership is something only the very richest and the very safest of countries can afford. Lincoln looked past Grant’s whiskey drinking and foul mouth to hire him to preserve the Union because he knew Grant was the one general in Lincoln’s arsenal who actually cared to fight to win. We’d do the same about these guy’s libidos were the stakes as high. Drive that jalopy off the cliff Congress, slashing defense spending to the bone, without an inkling of worry that it would impair the defense of the republic, because the republic is obviously very secure, else nothing of this would be a concern.
And while you’re slashing spending, take a good hard look at whether or not we really need a national police force like the FBI. Has the FBI really spent the last few weeks poring over thousands of e-mails between two senior officials and their mistresses? Is there a federal criminal statute against narcissistic powerful old men screwing hot, younger women? (Neither of these women are what I’d consider young—Broadwell is 40; Kelley is 37—but in a cougarly sort of way, they are perhaps hot). If so, then most every old rich guy who’s also a bit narcissistic (i.e., pretty much all of them) has broken the law. When is the last time the FBI investigated anything that remotely pertained to an issue of national importance that was not also investigated by a dozen or more other of the alphabet soup of agencies, all of which have their own investigative and enforcement services? If the FBI were disbanded, would anyone even notice? Except for the lack of sensationalistic headlines, I doubt it.
The FBI was a bad idea that could only have gained purchase through the efforts of a megalomaniacal champion willing to do whatever it took to ensure the agency’s survival. J. Edgar Hoover was artistically talented at compiling dirt on others while hiding from others the dirty little drag-queen secrets of his own. Once started, the FBI under Hoover became inevitable, because he gathered information on practically every powerful person (less charitably, he spied) like a dime-store novel detective on the trail of a murderer. Hoover is long dead, his evening gowns mothballed, suffused with their pungent odor of death and decay, but his legacy of investigating the private lives of prominent people carries on in the agency he created. Spending countless man-hours investigating two men and their mistresses is a page straight from the Hoover FBI’s playbook. And don’t buy for a moment that the FBI is concerned that the mistresses might have represented a threat to national security. The FBI is concerned with the leverage and relevance that would be afforded the agency through the prurient interest in the scandal.
There’s no small irony in this bizarre tale that heterosexuality, which is essentially all that these men were guilty of, might now be as scandalous, and thereby potent as a weapon of blackmail, as homosexuality once was. Less than a half-century or so ago, high level government officials were routinely dismissed if they were revealed as homosexual, simply because of the risk of blackmail, were a foreign agent to discover their deviant (for the times) proclivities. Now it appears that all a foreign enemy need do to gain control over our generals is to hire someone to seduce them. A general engaged in an extramarital affair who wants to keep his powerful and prestigious position will be forced to do whatever the seductress demands. The strategy has apparently not yet occurred to the Taliban or al Qaeda.
Though it is hardly necessary that the FBI be the investigating agency, perhaps fornication on the part of senior military, diplomatic and intelligence officials should be considered a national security breach. If the culture has become so prudish that an extramarital romp in the hay is grounds for immediate dismissal, then national security really is at stake anytime a general or admiral gets frisky for someone other than his wife. Or maybe instead of suffering the scandals when senior leaders are revealed to be subject to the same impulses as ordinary humans, the republic could eliminate the problem at its source, and have an eunuch military. Or, it could simply require the celibacy of its senior operatives, sort of how the Catholics require it of their priests. The general would be married to the Army or Marine Corps, and no other. But inevitably, a policy of celibacy would prompt legions of sexual deviants to join, even more so than already, which would cause sexual scandals so outrageous as to make a Roman Catholic pedophilic priest blush.
Nike didn’t feel it needed to protect its iconic swoosh when Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods, two of its sponsors, were found to have strayed from the marital bed (in the case of Tiger, repeatedly and often). It did not end its sponsorship relationship with either of them. But it fired Lance Armstrong when substantially incontrovertible evidence surfaced of his cheating at the sport from which he gained prominence sufficient for Nike to hire him as a sponsor. It seems there is a lesson here. Nike is in the business of making money. It does so by making shoes and other gear that it hires high-profile athletes to endorse. It did not feel its sales would be impaired by the sexual scandals of athlete endorsers. What its sponsors did off the field with their libido was more or less their own business, so long as Nike did not feel their ability to make money off their sponsorship was impaired.
How is the war-fighting or intelligence-gathering capacity of a senior political operative impaired by marital infidelity? Is serving the republic such a morally-tinctured responsibility that a moral breach in any sphere of life would impair the moral authority required to lead troops and intelligence operatives? Do military and intelligence leaders owe the republic they serve a moral duty of marital fidelity? What of their spouses? What if their spouses cheat? Is that a breach of moral responsibility to the republic? Should the cheating spouses of troops be fired from their jobs? Surely the cheating spouse of a fighting man does more to impair force effectiveness than a soldier, sailor, airman or marine who strays during his off-duty hours.
The careers of Petraeus and Allen in a way are casualties of the misplaced esteem, approaching deification, the public holds for military service, readily on display over the Veterans Day weekend, as seemingly every information and entertainment outlet, from NFL games to Bones, a Fox television show, got in on the act (Bones with a completely cheesy scene where six lab assistants of Bones stood around the corpse of a veteran and wept while telling stories about their 9-11 experiences). Accumulate power and prestige under the public’s assumption of innate, almost ascetic, selflessness from which your country reaps benefits, and it will be taken away when selfishness, even only in one’s private affairs, is revealed.
People who actually believe military service is, by itself, some selfless act of heroism, need to grow up. The fact of serving, or having served, in the military does not a hero make. I served six years. I did my job. I was paid for having done my job. That’s about all there was to it. I was not a hero. I didn’t dedicate my life to the United States of America like a monk dedicates his life to God. I simply pledged to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. When it became clear towards the end of my tour that nothing of what I was being asked to do involved defending the Constitution, I got out as soon as I could. The only people I knew when I was in who actually believed they were engaged in heroic sacrifice for their country just by serving were the ringknockers from West Point, and a few of the other junior officers. But they bought into the nonsense out of selfishness, thinking it might enhance their career prospects. Just like there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no altruists on a career path in the military.
The idea that a republic can be ruled and protected by some ascetic sect of individuals selflessly dedicated to the betterment of the republic perhaps originated with Plato. In Plato’s Republic, the Guardians would rule, but not before their fifth decade, and not until enduring a lifetime of sacrifices and tests to ensure their capacity and wisdom for rule, and their selfless dedication to the Republic. Having been disgusted by the naked ambition we routinely witness in our politicians, we seek comfort today in conjuring (if unwittingly) the Platonic ideal of the Guardian, and projecting it upon our military, and particularly its leaders. But it is all just so much romantic nonsense. Just like Plato’s Guardians could not have been any better than the society from which they were drawn, the military is no better or worse than the society it is sworn to defend. It is populated by regular old humans, not demigods nor even Guardians, and they are subject to all the same selfish and sexual impulses as the rest of us.
The little soap opera of Petraeus & Broadwell and Allen & Kelley is still in its early days, and it may turn out that more is yet revealed. But no matter what else might be revealed, it is hard to imagine any of this would matter if the republic felt so threatened militarily that it needed the services of Petraeus and Kelley. Ethics and morality are ever and always inherently subjective, depending on the time and circumstances in which they are being evaluated, as the demise of the generals’ careers attests.