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Although the story so far is of a personal failing, it's possible that the widening sex scandal surrounding retired Gen. David Petraeus will begin to affect the military's reputation as a whole.
"David Petraeus suddenly falling that far off that high a pedestal is feeding into the question: Have we been giving these guys too much of a pass?" says Barbara Bodine, who teaches public affairs at Princeton University.
There's been a decline in respect for other institutions — sometimes, although not always, due to sex scandals, as in the case of the Catholic Church, college football and numerous members of Congress and other politicians.
The military, by contrast, has been seen as highly competent through a long decade of war. The reputation of its leadership — distinct from the errors of some troops in the field — has been solid, insulated to a large extent from outside questioning and accountability.
The broadening scandal involving Petraeus, who left the Army last year to head the CIA, may lead to a recalibration of the terms in which the military is discussed, monitored and regulated by civilian authorities, although there's no guarantee of that.
"It damages the military's reputation to the degree that that reputation has been inflated in a whole number of areas to include their moral uprightness or their status as paragons of virtues," says Richard Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina. "What's likely to happen is just a reminder to the American people that they're human beings, like others."
The Other 1 Percent
Members of the military have been operating in separate realms from civilian life. Most active-duty members of the military serve in and hail from the South. Even veterans are highly concentrated in a limited number of areas.
Thirty years ago, at least 10 percent of the population in 80 percent of all the counties in America had served in the military. By 2010, you could find a population with 10 percent veterans in just over one-fourth of all counties, according to Western Washington University sociologist Jay Teachman.
People who served in the military are now separate from — and held in higher esteem — than the general run of the population as a whole. Civilians are left feeling "guilty" about their lack of service, Bodine says — and aren't asking tough enough questions when it comes to things like military budgets.
"As the number of veterans in Congress has decreased, the adulation of the military has rapidly increased," says Bodine, a former State Department official who served as ambassador to Yemen.
Questioning Pentagon spending, whether during the Iraq War or the current debate over sequestration of the military budget, is seen as somehow not "supporting the troops."
"Since Vietnam, we have come to a very dangerous bargain," says Diane Mazur, author of A More Perfect Military. "You don't ask me to serve in the military, and in return I will not ask questions or be difficult or demand accountability."
Thousands Of Assaults
That lack of accountability, Mazur says, extends to sexual misconduct.
By all accounts thus far, Petraeus engaged in a consensual affair that took place after he left the military. But there have been numerous recent instances of military leaders relieved of command and charged with sexual crimes. In all, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta estimates there were nearly 19,000 cases of sexual violence within the military in 2011 alone.
Adultery itself is sometimes described as a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but that is inaccurate, says Mazur, who teaches law at the University of Florida. Typically, adultery is punishable only as part of a larger constellation of issues that undermine good order and discipline, she says.
"It's ironic that what seems like the entire federal government has been mustered to address Gen. Petraeus' affair, but we find it so difficult to focus in any effective way on the far more serious and long-standing problem of sexual assault," Mazur says.
'Arrogance Reinforced By Insularity'
The courts have contributed to this problem, Mazur argues, by leaving it largely to the military to police itself when it comes to sexual violence.
The military has its own courts, its own schools and its own culture — one that has received excessive deference from civilian authorities, says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense who is now at the Center for American Progress.
A recent book highlights the problem of incompetent generals not being taken to task for failed performance. "No institution — particularly one financed by the taxpayers — should be immune from thoughtful criticism," Aaron B. O'Connell, a historian at the U.S. Naval Academy, wrote recently in The New York Times.
Petraeus had been the most exalted military leader of his generation. Because of that fact — and because his affair was both salacious and threatens to implicate other officials — it's possible that its revelations could lead to a broader discussion of the military's proper role within society.
"We have a guilt complex about such a small percentage of the population fighting," Korb says. "This hopefully will put them back into their proper place. No institution is perfect, and we have to look at them realistically."
Bodine says that would be better, in the long run, for the military itself. It's dangerous for any institution to view itself as separate from — and superior to — the rest of society. For the military, a long period of lionization has bred an "arrogance reinforced by insularity," she says.
"I personally think that we were much healthier as a democracy when we really did have a citizens' army and they were more a part of everyday society, both for their good and ours," Bodine says.
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