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

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.

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

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