General David Petraeus and the Military Culture of Infidelity

When the news broke Friday that CIA Director David Petraeus had submitted his resignation to President Barack Obama, citing an extramarital affair it was only the beginning of a media frenzy that continued throughout the weekend and has apparently been the only thing worthy of reporting today. With every passing hour new information began leaking out about the sordid details of the affair, including that the affair was with Paula Broadwell the author of All In, the glowing biography.

What the analysis of this incident has focused on has been the cozy relationship between the media and the people in power that they cover, what the implications are for national security, or if you consume conservative media whether or not the Obama Administration prevented the resignation until after the presidential election for political reasons. The media did seem to bemoan the fact that they had to report the fall of Petraeus. Andre Mitchell, who broke the story Friday, said on the Rachel Maddow Show that “I don’t take any pleasure in this…this is really a personal tragedy.”

At Wired’s Danger Room, Spencer Ackerman wrote about how he was drawn into the cult of David Petraeus, “like many in the press, nearly every national politician, and lots of members of Petraeus’ brain trust over the years, I played a role in the creation of the legend around David Petraeus. Yes, Paula Broadwell wrote the ultimate Petraeus hagiography, the now-unfortunately titled All In. But she was hardly alone (except maybe for the sleeping-with-Petraeus part). The biggest irony surrounding Petraeus’ unexpected downfall is that he became a casualty of the very publicity machine he cultivated to portray him as superhuman.”

Ackerman’s article is worth the read. As is Michael Hastings piece.

The inevitable analysis of Petraeus’ downfall will be about powerful men and their inability to resist using that power to seduce women. President Bill Clinton, Governor Mark Sanford, and John Edwards are just a few names that may appear in comparisons. However, I think it is worth examining another narrative, and that is the role that the culture of infidelity in the military may have played. In a piece in Danger Room, Noah Shachtman and Spencer Ackerman write about how rumors swirled about Petraeus and Broadwell in the Summer of 2010 while she was writing his biography in Kabul, Afghanistan. They report that Petraeus’ former aides insist that the relationship did not start until after Petraeus retired from the military and became the head of the CIA.

If we find out that Petraeus and Broadwell had been in a relationship for a much long period of time that he is currently willing to admit, and that members of his inner circle and maybe even those not on the inside knew about the affair – I don’t want you to be surprised. There are many aspects to the military culture; some of which are very positive and some of which are not so positive. One of the aspects of military culture is the acceptance of infidelity; especially when it concerns infidelity while deployed. There is no data to point to, and no reports to cite. So, evidence is anecdotal and circumstantial. But, as someone who experienced the culture firsthand for eight years, I feel qualified to give my opinion.

The prevalence of cheating while deployed, both by the spouse that is deployed and the spouse that is left at home, is well known among those who have served. While both men and women in the military have extramarital affairs during deployments, discussions about this topic usually follow specific gender norms: military men cheating overseas and military wives cheating back at the home front. Of course the reality is far more complex. Despite the gender roles, what usually remains the same is a code that is followed by those who deploy overseas: a code of silence.

Like in Vegas: What happens overseas, stays overseas. Whether it is an affair with a fellow military member or the paying for sex from a prostitute overseas, the code of silence is observed. There are times when the code is not simply observed, but fellow serve members help facilitate the infidelity. This culture is then taught to subordinates, either directly or indirectly. NCO’s may spend a port visit with their subordinates visiting brothels. Officers may look the other way while married JO’s hook up with other married JO’s.

I’m not writing this to pass any kind of moral judgment. That can be done by the reader. However, keep in mind a few things. First, often times spouses do have arrangements that allow for sex outside of marriage while they are apart during deployments. Second, the stress that is experienced by a military member during a deployment, especially those deployed that spend time in combat situations, cannot be understated. Third, the acceptance of this culture is wide but it is not unanimous.

No matter your opinion of Petraeus – whether you see him as a military hero or a product of a public relations campaign – just keep in mind that not only is he “human after all,” he’s also a military man. Which means that for all the great acts of selflessness and valor that have been done by those who want nothing more than to serve their country, many of us took part in a culture that allows a certain moral flexibility. But, when you ask people to kill their fellow human beings, don’t be surprised if morality looks a little different to the people that have to do the killing.

Photo: President Barack Obama listens as CIA Director David Petraeus in the Situation Room.

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