There is nothing quite like a wild sex scandal to rivet Americans’ attention, and — boy howdy! — does the military have our attention now!
Recent years have brought us politicians of both stripes who paid bazillions of dollars to make their names and faces known to the American public and then, inexplicably, thought no one would notice when they had a little fling. Think the South Carolina Governor who told his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail and then boarded a commercial airliner with his American passport to visit his sweetie in South America. Think the New York Governor who patronized a highpriced call girl in a fancy but public hotel. Think our own former Senator John Edwards who fell for a girl with a camera trained on — guess who?! — himself! Now it seems to be the military’s turn.
First came Army General David Petraeus, who not so long ago was a hero within our midst here in the greater Fort Bragg community, and his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Then came an entwined but murkier situation between Marine General John Allen and Jill Kelley. Both combos feature everyone married, everyone attractive and everyone successful.
Throw in a couple of lesser light Generals — William “Kip” Ward, the former commander of the U.S. African Command, who stands accused of taking his wife on an $80,000-plus vacation at our expense and Jeffrey Sinclair, who has Fort Bragg ties through the 82nd Airborne Division and who is charged with such charming offenses as forcible sodomy, and it is clear that there is serious trouble in our military’s River City. The predictable investigations are already underway.
No one could convincingly make this stuff up.
Several thoughts occur to me about all this.
The first is that all of us are human beings and we all have feet of clay in some regard, and that military life during two lengthy and unpopular wars comes with significant personal and family challenges. Secondly, women tell each other, “There is just something about a man in uniform.” That seems even truer if the uniforms come with lots of brass, as is the case with these decorated generals who have reached the stratosphere of military and governmental careers.
Power, it is said, is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and it certainly seems a major factor in both our political and military scandals.
That being said, these officers have been charged with the safety of our nation and of other people in other parts of the world. The decisions they have made in their personal lives cannot help but give us pause about the decisions they have made in our names.
Another question has implications for each of us who communicates by email, which, as far as I can tell, is virtually everyone born since World War II and a substantial percentage of people on the front side of that dividing line.
What is privacy and do we still have any?
Once upon a time, privacy was an envelope with a sealed flap. It was a diary we kept in a locked drawer. It was a telephone conversation between two people, each holding a receiver with a cord attached to it.
The Petraeus-Broadwell and Allen-Kelley relationships, whatever they really are, unraveled in public over emails the parties exchanged with each other. None of them apparently ever imagined that their emails would be scrutinized by no less than the Federal Bureau of Investigation or discussed in national and international media in all their “sweetheart” and “honey” glory.
Most of us probably send and receive emails that would render other people into comas born of boredom. My own are generally among family members and friends, with the occasional communication regarding boards I serve on and appointments I have for meetings and other obligations.
My emails allow me to keep up with those near and dear and to structure my schedule to avoid confl icts. While they are important to me, they are hardly intriguing, provocative or even interesting reading. I suspect many of yours are much the same.
At the same time, my emails are mine, and I assume they are private.
But they really are not.
Modern communications are with us forever, unless one is technologically savvy enough to make them disappear. Otherwise, they linger on our hard drives and in cyberspace in case the FBI or someone far less intimidating, even mundane, decides to take a peek. I really do not think anyone is checking out my email and text communications, but I also understand the capability is there, as the generals in question and their special friends have learned so painfully and so publicly.
The lessons in these sad messes seem to be two-fold.
In this age of 24/7 cameras, celebrity watching and bigger than life public fi gures, it is not possible to melt back into the Average Joe whom no one recognizes and who can do what he or she pleases in anonymity.
And, do not press the “send” button on anything you would not want your grandmother to read on the front page of The New York Times.