The U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice considers adultery a crime, as news coverage of the resignation of Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus has shown.
He said his affair with biographer Paula Broadwell didn't begin until after he had retired as an Army general, but his case highlights how the military holds itself to a different and higher standard than society at large.
Yet the military doesn't set these standards. The uniform code is legislated and amended by Congress or the president. The military abides by a different standard because we establish that standard for it.
Since coming into force in 1951, the uniform code has criminalized adultery for two reasons. One is to reduce the distraction and potential morale-depleting messiness that such behavior can have on people whose bonding affects their ability to work. The second is to reinforce the leaders' moral stature among those whose lives they risk.
Both standards are important to the nature of the military. Adultery is only punishable when it detracts from good order and discipline or brings discredit upon the armed forces. That leaves commanders latitude in deciding whether to pursue even proven cases of adultery; they weigh the value that person contributes against the damage of his or her behavior. Adultery tends to be prosecuted when it occurs between people in the same unit or between ranks, where it might suggest advantage being taken or given.
The men and women who fight the nation's wars accept intrusions into their activities most of us would balk at. This doesn't just apply to generals and admirals, though their higher level of visibility and authority makes their behavior more likely to affect good order and discipline and to bring discredit. If an enlisted soldier gets a speeding ticket or falls behind on her car payments, her commanding officer will be informed. Family violence is career-ending in most cases.
The military supports maintaining the adultery standard, and its leaders should be held even more rigorously to it than junior service members. But the armed forces and the rest of us should consider whether we have the right balance in our expectations of the military and that those expectations are not narrowly confined to the issue of marital fidelity.
In the past decade American society has become less and less engaged in the nation's wars. Nothing has been asked of us, while enormous sacrifices have been asked of the military and their families. They have been deployed repeatedly to fight wars that keep escalating in difficulty.
Americans are more gracious toward veterans than they were during the Vietnam War, yet we typically satisfy ourselves with the palliatives of yellow ribbons and thanking the troops for their service rather than pulling them back into our communities or trying to understand their experience. We act as though they are all heroes, because that relieves us of having to understand the morally complex universe of problems they navigate on our behalf. They are the appointed virtuous avatars — with fawning deference shown especially to senior generals.
That is both a compliment and a burden they shouldn't have to carry. The historian Joseph Ellis pointed out in his biography of George Washington that by carving America's Founding Fathers out of marble we undervalue what they accomplished. They weren't perfect — they were scheming, petty, flawed in many ways — which makes their achievement all the more astounding. The same is true for the military.
When the U.S. had military conscription — the draft — we didn't think that the troops were different from broader society.
This isn't an argument for conscription; that brought problems of its own. But it is an argument for dealing with members of the military as human beings with faults we neither exaggerate nor overlook.
But we also have to be careful how much we insist members of the military are just like our society. We need it to be good at fighting and winning wars. As the novelist George Eliot said, "The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men."