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November 14, 2012

The Death of Self Control

If there's anything more certain in life than high ranking public officials thoughtlessly wrecking their careers and personal lives over sex, it's that such public train wrecks will generate reams of equally thoughtless rationalization and navel gazing.

When asked to comment on the mess he created by engaging in an affair with a married woman and mother while ostensibly running the CIA, David Petraeus allowed that he had displayed incredibly bad judgment. In layman's terms, he "screwed up".

Sometimes, it really is that simple.

So it's bizarre to watch so many pundits worrying about online privacy (now there's an oxymoron for the ages) or naively wondering why, oh why the poor General can't keep his job. We've been a fan of General Petraeus over the years. Handed a potential disaster in Iraq, he did a fine job without continually complaining about the mess he'd inherited from his predecessor. Afghanistan was always more complicated but he seems to have performed well there, too.

But the idea that conducting an affair with a woman who has so little judgment, self control, or personal discretion that she engages in cat fights with perceived rivals and lets slip juicy inside gossip about national security matters is a pardonable offense is laughable on its face. As hard as it has become to be shocked in the anything goes, standards-free world we live in, I can't help but find many of the arguments I'm reading deeply troubling.

First, the disclaimers: having been married for well over 3 decades, almost 5 years of which have been spent without the blessings of conjugal visitation, it's not particularly difficult to imagine oneself struggling with attraction to someone other than one's lawfully wedded spouse. It's not hard to imagine the small parade of cascading deceptions that starts with spending too much time alone with someone of the opposite sex - someone you're attracted to. Slowly, imperceptibly, one tiny bad decision leads to another. Something you never thought you'd do - that not-to-be-crossed line in the sand - suddenly becomes something you've already done once. It's the new normal.

The problem, of course, is that these small deceptions beget bigger deceptions. Every time you make up a story, invent an excuse, lie about where you've been (or where you're going, or when you'll be back, or why you seem distracted or aren't giving your job or your marriage the same attention you did before The Big Distraction) puts another stone in the wall between you and your conscience: between you and an inconvenient truth you're neither willing to face honestly nor admit to the world.

Every rule you made for yourself and are now willing to break makes it easier to break other rules. It's just a little lie, laid on top of a pile of other little lies.

This is a problem, especially for people in positions of great power. It used to be well understood that power is a corrupting force - with the opportunities power offers come increased temptations. This is why we used to hold our leaders to a higher standard: we understood that the span of influence and control that comes with leadership positions is a doubled edged sword. They can do more good than the average person, but also more harm.

I'm not sure when we lost this insight, but those who are saying "It's just sex" clearly don't get it. It's not the sex - it's the loss of a powerful idea: that from those to whom much is given (much trust, much power, much admiration and respect), much is also demanded.

As a young Marine officer's wife, I often encountered enlisted wives who would say things like, "It's OK for you. You're married to an officer. You can do whatever you like." And there are undoubtedly officers' wives who behave as though their husband's positions bestow a unearned lattitude on them. But there are so many more who feel the slow constriction on speech, behavior, and freedom that accompanies each promotion their husbands earn.

You are still yourself - an individual with your own opinions, feelings, reactions to those around you. You resent it when others treat you badly and are just as irritated by the normal frustrations of dealing with people as anyone else. But it's not really all about you and your feelings. Yes, you're still human but you also represent the Marine Corps to younger wives, both officer and enlisted. Some of them are watching you to see how you will respond to setbacks, frustrations, hardship.

Over the years, I have been inspired by informal leaders who wore no rank. I noticed how they always made time in their busy schedules, how they knew how many children this Marine had, or that that one's wife's father had just died. Or simply that someone was struggling and needed a friendly shoulder to lean upon. I was inspired by such leaders to try (and mostly fail, and pick myself up and try again) to live up to their example. By watching other women, I learned that if you behave rudely or with disrespect to Marines and their families, the integrity of the institution is damaged. Your husband's reputation is damaged. People think, "If he lets his wife throw her weight around, what does that say about him?? It's not fair, but with the privileges and trappings of rank come obligations. There used to be a term for this: nobless oblige. That position of prominence has a price tag.

Leadership, whether formal or informal, is a powerful force. David Petraeus has earned a nation's respect and gratitude for his many years of service. We can praise his many accomplishments and still understand why he could not remain in office.

That would indeed have been a betrayal of the values he worked for so many years to build in the men and women he led, and we honor his service best when we don't undermine the standards he so long encouraged and upheld in others. We can honor the general, and still feel compassion for the man.

Posted by Cassandra at November 14, 2012 07:34 AM

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Yanno, every time one of these "indiscretions" hits the front page ms. rdr takes me to task. "What's wrong with you men!?! Can't you keep your willies in your pants for ten minutes!?!" This usually results first, in my instant agreement with everything that mrs. rdr says and second, in the sudden appearance of incredibly pressing matters in the garage that need my immediate attention at least until the next news cycle.

He's what I don't understand about such behavior:

Right. I understand it perfectly, I just can't explain it. And (hopefully) I'll never have to, either.

Posted by: spd rdr at November 14, 2012 09:44 AM

If only it were just sex. That would mean he could make alternative arrangements, tidy arrangements that might have his wife's knowledge and acquiescence. No intimate lover to learn his professional secrets or exploit her special access, no secret affair whose existence could be blown sky high, threatening his marriage or his career and exposing him to blackmail.

Unfortunately, for most people there's no such thing as "just sex." It gets emotional, it gets sticky. The secrecy corrodes honesty and conscience. When the affair is ended there are hurt feelings and vengeful passions. In the let-down, the temptation to court danger is very great, to get some excitement back.

It's so unusual for a public figure to give the real reason for his resigning in disgrace that I've wondered whether Petraeus did so simply because he retains a strong sense of honor despite everything, or more specifically in order to defang a blackmail attempt. If he was being blackmailed, I hope his tormenters received an unpleasant shock when he called their bluff, and are now worrying about what a man may do when he returns to honesty after a long lapse.

But as I was saying over at Grim's place, the weird thing here is what the glimpse into this circle of acquaintances reveals about what they'd come to accept as normal. It's a very odd crowd. People thought Romney and Ryan were corny or cold, but I found them refreshingly free of internal demons: able to satisfy whatever need for excitement they may have by raising happy, successful families and setting their public ambitions high.

Posted by: Texan99 at November 14, 2012 10:35 AM

Right. The one thing about this that made sense was the resignation.

I've also read a ton of stories about 'Why did he step down?', one yesterday from London, which lamented America's anti-adultery culture in the strongest terms. (My favorite part was where it described America as 'increasingly moralizing.' That's the opposite of true.)

None of them seem to have understood, or tried to understand, the particular reality of military culture. Especially in the era of long and regular deployments, the effects on morale could be devastating -- even one occasion of adultery makes everyone else in the unit worry about their family. It's almost certain that General Petraeus will have sat in judgment of lower-ranked officers guilty of exactly what he did.

I am not inclined to judge the man too harshly simply because, when he had finally gotten a chance to come home and command at CENTCOM -- so he could be with his family, and rebuild his relationship with his wife after long years of service in Iraq -- we took him aside and asked him to go to Afghanistan. He did that because his country asked him to, as we had asked him to go so many times before. All that time away was in our service.

That fact doesn't change the wrongness of what he did, but it does inflect the kind of moral judgment we as citizens of the republic he was serving are properly placed to deliver. The Army is differently placed: if it turns out he was committing adultery during his time in uniform, they cannot afford to waive their duty to respond.

Posted by: Grim at November 14, 2012 10:49 AM

This usually results first, in my instant agreement with everything that mrs. rdr says and second, in the sudden appearance of incredibly pressing matters in the garage that need my immediate attention at least until the next news cycle.

OK, that made me laugh :)

In defense of the lovely and talented mrs rdr (not to mention every wife who has wondered the same thing), we womenfolk are often thinking of how many times we've seen or heard other men publicly condone such indiscretions. I don't know if this is a cultural thing or not, but it has worried me on occasion even though I really do trust my husband implicitly. There's a common sort of "guy argument" that we've all heard: "He couldn't help himself, I mean, can you blame him?"

It probably comes across differently to other men (maybe commiseration about the temptation more than condoning acting on it) than it does to women, but it's not exactly trust inducing for some of these guys to argue that men can't control themselves.

The thing is, cheating requires two people, at least one of whom was a married (or single) man and at least one of whom was a married (or single) woman. Unless they're all having sex with the same 3 women, there are obviously a fair number of women who can't keep their pants on, too :p

Posted by: Cassandra at November 14, 2012 11:10 AM

Well said Cass.

"the weird thing here is what the glimpse into this circle of acquaintances reveals about what they'd come to accept as normal. It's a very odd crowd."

I've a suspicion that odd almost always manifests in the halls of power, eventually, to some degree or another. That the oddities/subversions/etc. are excused as insignificant , or in some segments of the general population, celebrated, is a feature of this slo-mo skid that bothers me.

Posted by: bthun at November 14, 2012 11:25 AM

It's sad that so few men, having befouled their public trust, resign, especially in this country. The Brits seem to take resignation far more to heart – witness the recent resignation the head honcho at the BBC. Even in resignation though, there is not a great enough price paid for the dishonorable deed. Some sinecure often awaits such men, from which they will be called on to use their knowledge and expertise to write silly papers offering unwanted advice.

I would like to offer as patron saint of public men and private in flagrante – John Profumo.

After the Profumo Affair (politician Profumo & prostitute/model(?) Christine Keeler, - - - Soviet naval attaché Yevgeni Ivanov & prostitute/model(?) Christine Keeler) brought down the conservative government, Mr. Profumo took up making amends. He worked the rest of his life for a charity in East London – starting out cleaning toilets! I believe he received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) some ten years after the affair. I think it was as much his having spared the public having to suffer his continued presence in the public square as his private humbleness and charity that got him the CBE. May all fallen public servants, such as Petraeus, take their cue from John Profumo.

Posted by: George Pal at November 14, 2012 11:47 AM

To some extent, promotions distort normal relations between people. Positions and perceived influence get in the way.

I was very much saddened to realize as a new Major's wife that some of the people who suddenly paid all sorts of attention to me, weren't doing so on account of my vast good looks and personal charm :p

As a Captain's wife I got very involved with the command infrastructure at our duty station. I was trying to be supportive of my husband's career, but in doing so I was suddenly exposed to people I would never have associated with, otherwise. And they're perfectly willing to accept you, but something about the whole thing made me keep my distance.

I was cordial and friendly but didn't want to entangle myself with people who didn't share my values. The thing is, you step down from some of those positions and suddenly you're not the big cheese anymore. Even being uncomfortable with the attention while it was going on, I realized that part of me missed it a little once it was gone. Part is a sense of purpose, but we all have egos and that's a big part of it too.

I always had this sense that a part of me was being fed that I needed to watch very carefully. I expect that sounds weird - probably overthinking. But I never forgot it.

Posted by: Cassandra at November 14, 2012 11:53 AM

It probably comes across differently to other men (maybe commiseration about the temptation more than condoning acting on it) than it does to women, but it's not exactly trust inducing for some of these guys to argue that men can't control themselves.

Speaking for All Men Everywhere, it's more "there but for the grace of God..." than "nudge-nudge, wink." Men are not innately stupid, but we do carry the Incredibly Stupid gene, which from time to time can overcome a man's ability to think straight. When this happens, other men just shake their heads... and pray.

Posted by: spd rdr at November 14, 2012 12:00 PM

From my perspective, women look at this matter from the wrong direction. So do a lot of men, for that matter. You see, what Petraeus did was not an aberration in thinking, but the norm. (But not his actions. Very important difference.)

I say this as having spent a year unaccompanied in SouthEast Asia in the early 1970's. My observations during that year was that 90-95% of the men, officers and enlisted alike, engaged in extra-marital sex, whether it was just a steam & clean or an overnight with a female companion. That was over the course of a year, which is a long time for a normal healthy horny male of the species.

When I was in the Reserves, the percentage dropped drastically, from 90-95 % down to 40-50%. Here we are talking about a full weekend (Friday to Sunday) in a non-home city. A few of those guys had a steady friend other than their wife, while the remainder were always on the prowl, evidently enjoying the chase more than the conquest. Although one shouldn't underestimate the lure of straight sex, either. One fellow's techniques consisted of simply asking a pretty lady, "Do you want to f**k?" He estimated that his chances were 1 in 20, so that meant he simply had to ask at least 20 women. Another one swore by the motto, "Go Ugly Early." That ensured he would not be spending the night alone.

I don't expect women to understand why this is so, because I myself don't understand why this is so--I've always been one of the 5% overseas and 60% stateside who never stepped out on his wife-- but I can tell you that it is indeed so. And it is quite customary and normal.

I think that Spd nailed it, that it's more "there but for the grace of God..." than "nudge-nudge, wink."

Posted by: Rex at November 14, 2012 01:08 PM

I say this as having spent a year unaccompanied in SouthEast Asia in the early 1970's. My observations during that year was that 90-95% of the men, officers and enlisted alike, engaged in extra-marital sex, whether it was just a steam & clean or an overnight with a female companion. That was over the course of a year, which is a long time for a normal healthy horny male of the species.

I really hope that was just the people you came into contact with. How does anyone even know whether someone else is sleeping around? Why would that even come up in conversation, or if you were married, why on earth would anyone be so indiscrete that there was ANY danger of being found out?

When my kids were little, I had a neighbor and friend whose husband was cheating on her overseas with so many people that it got back to her in Hawaii, via a friend in CONUS. I would have left that man so fast it made his head spin.

I wonder how forgiving those men would be if they found out their wife stepped out on them while they were doing the same? My experience suggests that the double standard monster would rear its ugly head very, very fast.

Posted by: Cassandra at November 14, 2012 01:58 PM

Two things.

"What's wrong with you men!?! Can't you keep your willies in your pants for ten minutes!?!"

Given that the woman in this affair was also married, I don't quite understand why she's absolved of wrongdoing here. She also cheated on her spouse. [And for the record, Cass has ALWAYS been very good about mentioning that it takes two to tango, and that both sides are equally culpable]

I knew of exactly ONE case of a married servicemember cheating on his spouse in the five years I was in. And it wasn't from his bragging, but from the bragging of the female soldier who he was cheating with. I will confess I didn't report it, but given that he was the commander, I didn't really see where my stepping forward with hearsay evidence was going to do me any good.

Is it possible she lied? I suppose anything is possible. But she had means, motive and opportunity. But it was credible, and I had no particular reason to think she was making up stories. Plus, given the rank disparity (he: O-6, she E-4) her spreading the tale carried no great risk of damaging her. Any such fallout would be adjudged with her as victim, though she clearly did not consider herself such.

Posted by: MikeD at November 14, 2012 02:21 PM

I can't say I'm very surprised at the ubiquity of stepping out. What does surprise me a bit is the expanding sordidness of this affair, the amazing lack of discretion, the flakiness, the cat-fights, the total inability to come to grips with the care one ought to take when he or she is privy to national secrets that can put people's lives in danger. On the whole, as I said, letting things get so sticky. Surely people ought to be able to find some way of meeting their sexual needs, and even shedding one partner and securing another if that's what they insist on, without its all degenerating into this post-adolescent hothouse atmosphere? I've never understood why people who've lost interest in their spouses don't just divorce them. But it seems part of the thrill is the transgression, or we'd see only a dull series of divorces and remarriages, and where would we get the plots of our soap operas from?

Well, as someone said earlier today: "Generals taking orders from their privates."

Posted by: Texan99 at November 14, 2012 02:31 PM

Part of it has got to be wanting the security of the long term relationship with all that brings and reluctance to hurt your kids and extended family AND wanting the excitement of the affair.

And I completely get that. I can remember as a young wife in my 20s telling my Mom that I often thought of cheating and that it had ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with my satisfaction with my husband, sexual, personal, or otherwise.

It's just that when I got married, that part of me didn't die off. But I *did* make a promise, and I did make a commitment. And most of all, I couldn't hurt or betray the most important person in my life.

I kind of understand what you're getting at, though. If I were going to cheat I would end the relationship first. I don't get the sneaking around and the lying. It's disrespectful, not just to the other person but to my own sense of who I am.

Posted by: Cassandra at November 14, 2012 03:33 PM

In my experience there is nothing more destructive of good order and discipline than recreational sex amongst the crew; and nothing more descructive of morale than news/rumor that one's spouse is sharing his/her favors with another. I watched it play out during several long deployments.

on a tangetial, but pertinant note; returning from one of the deployments we (who were an all male ship) provided transportation/indoctrination/training for a female junior officer. There were no "events" but when we returned, my ombudsman took me aside and essentially said: "Captain, how could you let something so dangerous to the wives happen?" . At the time I thought she was way overreacting and didn't understand how naval disipline works. Lately, I'm beginning to think she was right.

Posted by: CAPT Mongo at November 14, 2012 03:35 PM

And thats "destructive" and "discipline" of course. Long day etc. Sure wish spell check worked in these comments. Of course i could take the time to carefully read my post first too.

Posted by: CAPT Mongo at November 14, 2012 03:38 PM

Let me get this straight.

Leader screws up royally (affair and security leak), admits fault and resigns (Petraeus) and this is news for weeks with no end in sight.

Leader screws up royally (multiple people die), nobody admits fault nor resigns (Benghazi, Fast and Furious) and these are unimportant right wing distractions that barely deserve attention.

Is it really that the first is amazingly unusual while the latter has become commonplace?

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at November 14, 2012 03:49 PM

Thank you, Yu. I was wondering when someone would comment on the ridiculousness of this whole brouhaha. Apparently, the majority of Americans prefer prurient "entertainment" to contemplation of the true horror of Benghazi-gate.

Posted by: Nan at November 14, 2012 04:05 PM

//Notes in YAG Dossier:

Individual gives voice to questions that are indicative of the need for an extended sojourn at The Value System Tune-up Clinic. A For The Greater Good Community Service brought to you by the Fifth Chief Directorate of THE ØCARE Bureau//

Posted by: J. Edgar Hubris at November 14, 2012 04:33 PM

Frankly, I don't understand how Petraeous had the time or the energy to do all this. I'm about the same age as he is, and I drag myself home everyday from working 8-10 hours a day, and don't have the pep to run the vacuum cleaner or get the car washed.

He is the frickin' energizer bunny of generals.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at November 14, 2012 06:35 PM

"He couldn't help himself, I mean, can you blame him?"

It probably comes across differently to other men....

Here's how it comes across to one of those "other men:" it infuriates me. It's of a piece with the Islamic justification for subjugating half the population and preventing an ostensibly grown adult human being from being alone in the company of another ostensibly grown adult human being if that other is a male not of her family. The poor, dumb woman is too stupid or weak to resist the advances of the male, and the male is a mere animal, capable of independent thought only with his nether brain.


Certainly, temptation can be very strong, and we're all subject to it. But there's no need routinely--or by exception--to surrender to it. Or we are just animals and not grown adult human beings.


Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at November 14, 2012 06:50 PM

The General was a good leader, I personally don't doubt that. But being a public official he has responsibilities as a social person. But still, I think one screw up should not erase the fact that he's the best.

Posted by: Alexis Marlons at November 14, 2012 11:56 PM

I have only one comment, can anyone keep a simple vow? Is it that hard.

Posted by: Allen at November 15, 2012 01:25 AM

Our Chief Spy allowed his mistress to have access to classified information. I don't think that "the best" is the adjective you are looking for.

A computer used by Paula Broadwell, the woman whose affair with CIA Director David Petraeus led to his resignation, contained substantial classified information that should have been stored under more secure conditions, law enforcement and national security officials said on Wednesday.

This would be a firing offense even if the classified materials were only available to his wife.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at November 15, 2012 08:51 AM

A computer used by Paula Broadwell...contained substantial classified information that should have been stored under more secure conditions....

Moreover, as a military personage of some seniority, L/C Paula Broadwell (USAR) knew better.

Neither one of these are what I would term "the best."

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at November 15, 2012 10:06 AM

One more thing: the lives of the men and women whose function is combat or combat support depend on the integrity of their officers (and NCOs, but the proximate subject is officers).

Something that is a scandal in the civilian world is a disaster in the military; there can be no excuses or exceptions. Officers must be held to the highest standards, not merely those to which we might hold others. This is far more than just an aw, s*t that cancels a bunch of attaboys.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at November 15, 2012 10:11 AM

"The only control is self-control."

I can understand how someone can slide over the line (male or female) ... and only stare at their lack of self-knowledge that dancing on the line is dangerous. Of course, there are those for whom the line doesn't seem to exist; "I'm married, it doesn't matter." Maybe, for some values of married.

Spice pointed out that it's possible that the General and his wife have an open marriage. That would seem to be unusual for a couple so involved in the military tradition.

At the point that the other woman (man) is putting things on her computer that she (he) shouldn't have seen at all ... Desperate Housewives in Tampa? ... why is it that those whose names are on the high office doors are treated so differently?

Enjoy the flirting and just say "I'm sorry, but no" if the line approaches. Is that so hard? Well, yes, it can be. "We have to back away from this, now, or all four of us will be hurt." "I wish we didn't have to." "So do I." Hug and walk away. Life is hard sometimes.

Posted by: htom at November 16, 2012 12:20 AM

But still, I think one screw up should not erase the fact that he's the best.

I understand this impulse, but those outside the military or intelligence community need to understand why this is something he NEEDED to resign over. For one thing, in the active duty military, adultery is actually a crime, and as all violations of the UCMJ are federal offenses, it's a serious one. The differences in rank between the two of them probably would have compounded this into unlawful fraternization, only mitigated by the fact that she was in a different branch of service. So we CAN safely set that one aside.

And secondly, an extra-marital affair is cause to lose a security clearance. Period. And if you want to argue whether that is justifiable or not, go ahead. I'm ok with it. Because an affair (not a one time "mistake" but an on-going, multi-event affair) shows such a stupefying lack of personal control and common sense that I don't really see how you should be trusted with secrets when your own spouse clearly can't trust you. And to make this even worse, he demonstrated what makes this so very dangerous in that she DID access classified materials from him during the course of the affair. My own WIFE has no idea what data passed through my hands in the five years I was in MI, nor will she until I'm about 99 years old (when the 75 year prohibition on discussing those materials are up), notwithstanding that none of it was all that interesting. I take my oaths pretty seriously, and it kind of grates on me quite badly that the head of the CIA, and a man who OUGHT to have known better did not.

Posted by: MikeD at November 16, 2012 08:48 AM

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