The media spent a fair amount of Veteran’s Day weekend abuzz with gossip about a small handful of veterans, starting with CIA Director and retired four-star Gen. David Petraeus and his biographer turned paramour Paula Broadwell. Petraeus resigned from his position heading the CIA on Friday, citing an extramarital affair, and setting off a cascade of online digging, speculative reporting and Bond jokes on Twitter. You could see Broadwell on The Daily Show winning a push-up contest for charity and on Book TV, speculate about whether Broadwell’s husband wrote to New York Times Ethicist Chuck Klosterman for advice–turns out, he didn’t–and pun on her name, a laugh-line for every taste.
The tawdriness of the affair, and the contradictions it represented were simply too obvious to be ignored. Broadwell’s glowing review of Petraeus was titled All In: The Education of General Petraeus. She wrote ”General David Petraeus’s Rules for Living,” column posted to the Daily Beast mere days before the scandal broke. And the details of how their affair came to light only reinforced the prevailing sentiment. The relationship was uncovered during an FBI investigation into harassing emails allegedly sent by Broadwell to a Tampa social planner and unpaid military social liaison Jill Kelley, who many suspect Broadwell considered a romantic rival. At the moment there is zero evidence to suggest this other other woman had an inappropriate relationship with Petraeus, but there is evidence she throws excellent pirate theme parties — at least one of which Petraeus attended with his wife. And Petraeus’s successor in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen is under investigation for inappropriate communication with Jill Kelley.
The story is almost unbelievably salacious, so it’s not surprising that this is probably the most a lot of people have read about sex and the military. But as crazy as the the presumably consensual intimate antics of these few military leaders are, they’re nothing compared to truly shocking issues surrounding sexual assault and harassment in military. The Armed Forces have been plagued by reports of a cultural of dismissal towards sexually harassment and assault: The Defense Department reports about one in three women in the military have been sexually assaulted, compared to one in six civilian women, and the Veteran’s Administration confirms about twenty percent of female Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans having experienced some form of sexual assault or related trauma.
That Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has acknowledged sexual assault is vastly under-counted in official records is both a troubling reminder of how bad the situation has become, and a ray of hope that the administration is willing to have an honest discussion about the issue and work towards fixing it. But in the mean time, we are faced with statistics that add up to a bleak portrait of how alleged serial abusers have thrived in military communities. Most prominent is the case of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who has been charged with forcible sodomy, multiple counts of adultery (a violation of military law) and having inappropriate relationships with four female subordinates. The first hearing in his case was last Monday.
Wired says the Pentagon and the Army have gone to “surprising lengths” to keep his case quiet and it shows: It’s hardly a blip on the radar compared to the Petraeus scandal. Certainly, it’s easier to joke about the soap opera plot unfolding among leadership than it is to process the challenges facing women in uniform every day for merely being female. But at the core of the Petraeus scandal are people who have spent significant portions of their lives deep in a culture with some very troubling norms about gender, and disturbing treatment of sexual violence. The Petraeus-Broadwell connection could even be seen as an extension of those dynamics: On one level, it’s a high powered authority figure who had a sexual relationship with someone who considered him a mentor — Petraeus was on Broadwell’s PhD advisory board, in addition to being the subject of her dissertation, and would have far outranked her during their overlapping time in the military.
Of course, such a legendarily disciplined leader couldn’t possibly be equally culpable, so we get to read story after story hitting all the familiar schadenfruede and slut-shaming notes like high school style gossip about Broadwell’s tight clothes in Afghanistan and her ”shameless self-promoting prom queen” persona. But the real scandal isn’t that yet another powerful man cheated on his wife. It’s that we have all the time to spend going through their dirty laundry, and almost none to spare to encourage the military to thoroughly clean house when it comes to sexual predators and the practices that protect them.