Why Petraeus's Affair Matters (but Bill Clinton's Didn't)

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In the military, there's very little distinction between public and private life.

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Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Along with millions who have lived and worked with members of the military, I was shocked when General Petraeus resigned on Friday. While it's a personal tragedy, it's only one of a number of body blows our military community has absorbed over the past couple of years. One blow: concerns about the erosion of the military family. Another: scandals (sexual, financial or otherwise) dogging our military's leaders. All of this is occurring as our country fights two major wars, one still ongoing. These are intimately interconnected issues that, taken together, make me wonder whether we are seeing the warning signs of a military stretched to its breaking point.

First, on families. Both inside and out of the national security community, many are questioning whether military adultery should be a big deal. Hasn't society become more tolerant of extramarital affairs? Clinton got a pass, Eisenhower had a mistress, former CIA Director Dulles had "hundreds" of extramarital flings. They're human, after all. Shouldn't service members be able to resolve these personal matters without facing professional ramifications?

Reflecting on my experiences, I have to say no. Not too long ago I dated an Army guy, and for a good portion of the time we were together, he was in Iraq. That year was filled with sleepless nights waiting for his phone calls. Worrying day in and day out about improvised explosive devices. About whether he would come home safely, in one piece. Trying to figure out how to help him manage things like moving into his new house—things he couldn't possibly do while deployed in Iraq. Breaking down and crying in front of my friends and family.

I experienced a tiny fraction of the worrying, the waiting that military spouses face. I had it easy. Husbands and wives often assume the role of caring for other members of their community left at home while their soldiers deploy. And they do this in addition to single-handedly taking care of the kids, their own careers (if they have them), and making sure the home front doesn't go to hell. The partners of military leaders probably have it the worst: they are often required to manage the funeral arrangements for fallen soldiers. The spouse who remains home often manages all aspects of the service member's life, enabling them to focus exclusively on serving our nation while in harm's way. And in my experience, they do all this with stoicism and grace, masking that quiet fear that their partner may not come home alive. These are special people. The occasional martini must help.

Given the division of labor between military partnerships, it's crucial to cultivate the bonds of trust between warfighters and their spouses. These family teams jointly shoulder the load of national service. The military rightly prioritizes the importance of strengthening these bonds; it's the glue that holds our military together—especially as couples grapple with multiple deployments. Adultery, therefore, has both personal and professional ramifications.

Divorce isn't always due to adultery, of course. Still, the trends are worrying. Data published by the Pentagon suggests that multiple deployments are taking their toll across the force and their families. The military divorce rate for 2011 alone was 3.7 percent. It may seem like a small number, but it adds up over the years. By contrast, the civilian divorce rate has been declining since 2000, reported at 3.5 percent in 2009. After spending so much time away from each other, families are finding it harder and harder to stay together. Military families are increasingly becoming a casualty of war.

I cannot imagine how military spouses must feel right now, the deep-down questions some must have. Especially since the Petraeus scandal is just one of several high-profile examples of extramarital spirit quests by leaders in our national security establishment. Colonel James Johnson, former commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was convicted of bigamy and fraud after it was revealed that he married his Iraqi mistress while deployed. Naval Commander Michael Ward was relieved for faking his own death to end an extramarital affair that he began through an online profile he created on match.com. The trial of Brigadier General Sinclair of the 82nd Airborne is currently underway; he is charged with adultery with female subordinates (among other things).

As a result of these high-profile missteps, will military spouses increasingly second guess whether their loved ones are being faithful while deployed to far-flung areas? It may be an unfair question when considering that many do, in fact, remain faithful. But like it or not, incidents like these sow doubt in one's mind. Perhaps more importantly, if trust breaks down between our military's leaders and their spouses, why should the American public trust them with the lives of our service personnel?

Some argue that leaders of other large organizations—CEOs for example—are rarely reprimanded for sexual indiscretions. Why should military leaders? This is a false analogy. CEOs are not expected to lead men and women in to battle, possibly to their deaths. CEOs rarely have responsibility to the American people for the care and welfare of an entire community of subordinates, including soldiers and their families. This is why it is so important to hold military leaders accountable when they violate rules governing their conduct. There's very little distinction between private and professional conduct when it comes to the military.

All of this raises a larger point about our military's leadership. In addition to the sex scandals, these days it seems not a week goes by without a terrible story surfacing about senior leader misconduct. The staff surrounding General McChrystal who mouthed off about their Commander in Chief; former U.S. Africa Commander General Ward who was found to have misused government funds. The Lieutenant General in charge of the Missile Defense Agency, dismissed due to his toxic leadership style ("management by blowtorch"). At least 22 Naval officers have been relieved of command because of a wide variety of indiscretions. The list goes on.

What is happening? The military is America's most respected institution. But it seems like a growing roster of military leaders are gambling with our nation's trust in them. People charged with life or death decisions should behave in a manner commensurate with their leadership responsibilities.

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Kathleen J. McInnis served as a Pentagon strategist from 2006 to 2009.

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