On Veterans Day weekend, Washington was all atwitter over the resignation of CIA director David Petraeus for an illicit affair. A retired general who in the past decade was thrown into the breach of two failing wars and stared down murderous insurgencies was ultimately felled by the one adversary he could not outsmart -- temptation.
Though the most distinguished strategic thinker of his generation of military officers, Petraeus benefited from none of the forbearance or discretion accorded predecessors such as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who conducted a long-term affair with his staff driver while plotting the D-Day invasion. A thoroughly modern man, Petraeus knew better than most the new rules of the game, where there is no presumption of privacy and military officers are expected to fight and if necessary to die, but not to so much as take a drink in the field, and never to philander.
So this Veterans Day, let us consider the code of conduct we demand of America’s warrior monks.
If you go to an Officer’s Club to mark the occasion, for instance, don’t expect a raucous crowd. The U.S. military’s “zero tolerance” policy towards infractions, drunk driving, or practically any behavior “unbecoming” long ago ended the “O Club” happy hours that were once a mainstay of military life. This is definitely not your father’s From Here to Eternity military.
In terms of family separations, few Americans other than those who have directly experienced them understand the toll that multiple, year-long combat deployments exact on relationships. Just a cursory look at Army two-star generals who command at the division level -- an elite club of the service’s best and brightest -- reveals at least four, and possibly more, who have been divorced in recent years.
After 9/11, the military divorce rate climbed from 2.6 percent per year in 2001 to 3.6 percent in 2010. And 7.8 percent of women in the military divorced in 2010. Because the military does not track overall divorce rates, count as divorced those service members who remarry in a given year, or follow up on the divorce rate of military personnel a year or two after they leave service, many experts believe the Pentagon vastly underestimates the actual rate of military divorce.
“Overall divorce rates in the military could be as high as 80 percent for first marriages,” Leticia Dreiling, a marriage and family therapist for the Department of Veterans Affairs, told this reporter last year. “That would mean that service in the military is becoming a precursor for divorce.”
Only David and Holly Petraeus know what impact his combat tours had on their marriage, but everyone knows those deployments were numerous. Petraeus commanded the 101st Division for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation; returned to lead all U.S. and coalition forces for 18 months in 2007-2008; logged a lot of Iraq time as commander of U.S. Central Command in 2008-2010; and then spent a year as commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2010-2011. That’s a lot of missed wedding anniversaries and birthdays.
One senior Army officer who has been in contact with Petraeus describes him as incredibly sad at the pain the indiscretion has caused his family and friends. Petraeus acknowledges acting foolishly and screwing up, and like a good soldier he will now fall on his sword and fade from public life. Yet for many who have answered the call and made similar sacrifices, there is something in the manner of Petraeus’ departure that rankles.
“No one is condoning what Petraeus did, but there are a lot of self-righteous people holding him to a standard that not many people could meet, without considering what he sacrificed because of the years of separation from his spouse and family,” said one Army general. “There’s a lack of proportionality between the crime and the reaction, where we are suddenly treating like a leper an incredibly talented individual who still had a lot to offer his country.”