NPR floats the idea that David Petraeus’ scandal will help the military in the long run by allowing the public to view it not as an exalted organization incapable of error but more realistically as a human institution, containing all our flaws.
The military, by contrast, has been seen as highly competent through a long decade of war. The reputation of its leadership — distinct from the errors of some troops in the field — has been solid, insulated to a large extent from outside questioning and accountability.
The broadening scandal involving Petraeus, who left the Army last year to head the CIA, may lead to a recalibration of the terms in which the military is discussed, monitored and regulated by civilian authorities, although there’s no guarantee of that.
“It damages the military’s reputation to the degree that that reputation has been inflated in a whole number of areas to include their moral uprightness or their status as paragons of virtues,” says Richard Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina. “What’s likely to happen is just a reminder to the American people that they’re human beings, like others.”
Our ability to hold the military acocuntable could also improve as a result of our more realistic impressions:
“Since Vietnam, we have come to a very dangerous bargain,” says Diane Mazur, author of A More Perfect Military. “You don’t ask me to serve in the military, and in return I will not ask questions or be difficult or demand accountability.”
That lack of accountability, Mazur says, extends to sexual misconduct.
By all accounts thus far, Petraeus engaged in a consensual affair that took place after he left the military. But there have been numerous recent instances of military leaders relieved of command and charged with sexual crimes. In all, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta estimates there were nearly 19,000 cases of sexual violence within the military in 2011 alone.
Adultery itself is sometimes described as a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but that is inaccurate, says Mazur, who teaches law at the University of Florida. Typically, adultery is punishable only as part of a larger constellation of issues that undermine good order and discipline, she says.
“It’s ironic that what seems like the entire federal government has been mustered to address Gen. Petraeus’ affair, but we find it so difficult to focus in any effective way on the far more serious and long-standing problem of sexual assault,” Mazur says.