The extramarital affair of retired Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan before being elevated to CIA director, is a black eye for the Army and undermines the service’s code of military conduct and its doctrine of support for families, local military leaders and experts say.
But the scandal, while titillating, shouldn’t have a long-term affect on military discipline, those experts say. That’s because Petraeus, 60, was retired before he began his tryst with his 40-year-old biographer and because resigned his CIA post immediately when news of the affair surfaced.
“If it had been unacknowledged or glossed over or not acted upon, I think it probably would have more of an effect,” said retired Maj. Gen. William “Dutch” Holland, a former commander of the Ninth Air Force, based at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter. “The standards are the standards, and they should be equally applied to the three-striper (enlisted personnel) as well as the four-star general or admiral. If the standards are not held appropriately at one level or the other, then I think you’ve got a problem.”
Carla Atkinson, director of Army community services at Fort Jackson in Columbia, the Army’s largest training base, agrees.
Atkinson’s department helps military families deal with the challenges presented by multiple deployments, financial issues and combat-related stress. She said any time a high-ranking officer “is not consistent in their values” it hurts the service and makes it harder to instill those values in young soldiers.
“Leaders are supposed to set an example,” she said. “Right now, it’s a black eye and hurts our reputation. But long term, the Army will survive.”
Classic professor- student affair
Petraeus resigned Nov. 9 after acknowledging he had an affair with Paula Broadwell, a fellow West Point graduate who spent months studying the general’s leadership in Afghanistan and wrote a biography of him, entitled “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.”
Broadwell met Petraeus in 2006 as a graduate student when the general spoke at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She started a doctoral dissertation on Petraeus’ leadership style before expanding it into the biography.
Frederic J. Medway, a USC distinguished professor emeritus and a Columbia psychologist, said the Petraeus-Broadwell affair is a textbook professor-student attraction with little relationship to the military except that Petraeus was a soldier.
“It’s a classic model,” he said. “She’s hanging on your every word. She’s telling you how much she admires you. You work together closely, and the closeness grows. We shouldn’t be surprised that it would lead to a relationship.”
Petraeus reportedly ended the affair last summer when he learned that Broadwell had been sending harassing emails to a family friend, Jill Kelley, a Florida socialite who passed the emails along to an FBI agent.
Medway said the emails, too, are a classic reaction of a young admirer who sees a threat from another potential suitor.
“She views this as her last shot to have a relationship with her hero, her lover, her mentor and, because we are in South Carolina, I have to say, her soul mate,” Medway said.
Although not unusual and not necessarily related to his military service, Petraeus’ affair has taken on more importance in the media because of his leadership position in the Armed Forces during a time of war, Medway said.
“Anytime you have bad news it harms an institution,” he said. “That’s why the people in charge of that institution, in this case the president, want to clean house because of the visibility of this major figure.”
‘Excuse the men, label the women’
Although the effect on the military should be minimal in the long term, there are lessons to be learned from the affair, said Claudia Smith Brinson, a senior lecturer at Columbia College and the daughter of an Air Force officer.
“Even though he is retired general, he still draws a pension and is called a general,” she said. “Your code of honor should remain.”
Still, Brinson predicted Petraeus eventually will be forgiven for his transgressions, even if he shouldn’t be. Broadwell, she added, already has been painted as a vixen who ensnared a general, a label that Brinson doesn’t think Broadwell deserves.
“It’s sexist,” she said. “There’s a stereotype assigned. The phrase ‘wily temptress’ has already been used.”
Brinson noted Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, commander of Allied forces in World War II, had an affair with aide Kay Summersby and went on to become the president of the United States.
“That’s the other sexist aspect of this,” she said, “That boys will be boys. We went through that with Bill Clinton. Core character can be overlooked.”
Brinson added that leads to a conflicted and sometimes contradictory reaction to the scandal.
“Because we are sending soldiers into situations of possible death, we have a higher expectation that our leaders behave in a certain way,” she said. “But still we excuse the men. We label the women. We aren’t quite sure how to respond and who to blame.”
Ike McLeese, the chief executive of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce and currently a civilian aide to the secretary of the Army, said the scandal will resonate especially in light of the Benghazi controversy and fears that national security had been compromised.
But in the end, the spotlight will move on, he predicts.
“Does it hurt the Army? It doesn’t help,” he said. “But, over the long haul, like most things in this country, we’ll move to the next major news story. It’s a human tragedy – a man who has served that distinguished a career to screw it up at the end by bad judgment. But, over the long haul, I’m not sure it will hurt that much.
“The military has a culture of not taking that kind of performance lightly,” McLeese said. “It would have been looked on differently if he would have done some of those things with the uniform on, versus after the fact.
“It never helps when you have a high-profile leader in this country, whether in uniform or out of uniform but still serving the country, that is accused and acknowledges that kind of behavior.”