General David Petraeus resigned as head of the CIA today. He said it was because he had engaged in an extramarital affair.
America’s leaders quickly announced how regretful they were, and what a big loss the country had just suffered. President Obama said that “through his lifetime of service, David Petraeus has made our country safer and stronger.”
Senator John McCain, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Petraeus one of “America’s greatest military heroes.” Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said “I wish President Obama had not accepted this resignation…I would have stood up for him, I wanted him to continue.”
Currently, adultery is against military regulations if the conduct is shown to be detrimental to, or brings discredit upon, the armed forces. Such a subjective standard is easily used to punish or exonerate; typically, it’s to punish. In fact, other federal agencies forbid adultery as well. The State Department recently added adultery to its list of banned activities. Yes, you could lose your job as a translator, teacher, or construction worker if you break your marital vows.
So given his obvious breach of military rules, why didn’t America’s leaders want Petraeus to resign? And if this is simply a familiar (if spectacular) case of a good man who made a mistake, why not change the rules for mere mortals?
Historically, the justification for the regulations was blackmail: “Give us America’s nuclear secrets or we tell your wife about your girlfriend.” But once someone outs himself, that possibility vanishes. And remember, that was the argument against allowing homosexuals in government or the military.
In fact, it’s against military regulations to have a consensual open marriage. And in that case—since there’s no marital secret—there’s no more risk of blackmail than there is for any other secret: My father was a bookie. My grandmother is a whore. My brother can’t read. My sister voted for George Bush. Whatever.
The idea that infidelity indicates a special character weakness is old-fashioned, unscientific, and moralistic in the extreme. Concepts like this are a poor way to run a country. But even if you believe that the maritally unfaithful can’t be trusted to execute important civic responsibilities, what about consensual non-monogamy? There’s no betrayal, so there is no character flaw. And with no chance for blackmail, how can we justify regulations against it?
Oh, you’re a soldier or a spy and you’re single? Do what you want, as long as it’s consensual. But note that the State Department is more stringent. They can fire you for “engaging in public or promiscuous sexual relations.” “Public,” “promiscuous”—that’s nice and vague.
So if you’re going to join the Army or the CIA, don’t marry. If you already are, get divorced. You wouldn’t want to lose your job over a private, non-job mistake.
Some day, the idea that you could get bounced from the military because of infidelity will seem as destructive as the idea that you could get bounced from the military because of homosexuality.
Shame on America. The greatest military power on earth, and we’re afraid of sex.