Congresswoman Jackie Speier

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Four-star Generals are not Infallible

November 16, 2012


San Francisco Chronicle
By Jackie Speier

Our national defense leadership has been embarrassed by two generals who left an electronic trail of contacts with two married women - not married to them. These generals excel at military strategy, but lack that thread of responsibility that would have kept them from becoming the star attractions of a global media circus. Their actions come at a time when the military itself is suffering from mounting cases of sexual abuse among its members. Unquestionably, the opportunity to lead by example has been seriously compromised by two men who acted like demigods.

When Gen. David Petraeus was director of the CIA, he put his private feelings in an e-mail draft folder that was accessible to the "other woman," Paula Broadwell, an Army reservist. So the couple read each other's drafts without actually sending them. It was a clever strategy, long used by teenagers, which underscores that they knew what they were doing wasn't "responsible." And the e-mail dam burst on Gen. John Allen, who, according to news reports, exchanged 20,000 e-mails and documents with Florida socialite Jill Kelley over two years. How does Allen, commander of our troops in Afghanistan, find time to send and respond to thousands of e-mails involving one other person?

The real harm in all of this may not be realized until investigations tell us why these matters became public. Was there a subversive plot afoot to embarrass these generals, or was it just a matter of stupidity?

There are myriad perspectives on this scandal. Congress wasn't informed. The president wasn't told. It's a moral, not a security, issue, or it is simply an invasion of privacy by the FBI?

I'll start from the bottom up. Our military involves less than 1 percent of our citizenry and has its own set of rules on behavior that are unknown to most Americans. In 2010, an estimated 19,000 sexual assaults occurred in our military - men and women in uniform raped or sexually assaulted other men and women in uniform. Only 13 percent of these acts of sexual violence were reported, because victims fear the uneven hand of military justice, and only 8 percent of reported acts resulted in court-martial convictions.

The biggest military sex scandal of the past year concerns a Texas Air Force training base where one instructor was convicted of raping a trainee, and four other instructors were found guilty of inappropriate relationships with recruits. An additional 20 instructors face similar charges. The sex abuse at this base has been tolerated for years.

The military justice system, controlled by commanding officers, is noted for protecting people at the top. And the people at the top - Petraeus and Allen - are/were in charge of setting the tone for proper military behavior. I guess they didn't get the memo.

Many of these three- and four-star generals think they are beyond reproach, gods among mere mortals. The military chain of command largely reinforces the idea that their decisions and judgment should not be questioned by lower-ranking officers and enlisted service members.

Apologists on TV are explaining that four-star generals are driven to succeed and that this drive (substitute "testosterone"), along with long periods away from home, coupled with "designing women," can lead to ... bad decisions. Stop.

These two men were leaders in enforcing our national defense. To suggest that temptresses made them do it is to mask their lack of order and discipline - simply put, they are the example for all troops. And I wonder how CIA operatives are being received by potential informants overseas when our generals fall from grace so quickly?

"Four stars do not make a person infallible" should be the title of a new course taught at our military academies and war colleges. The subject material would be the current scandal involving Petraeus and Allen, and how rank can blind a person to the 24/7 responsibility of leadership.