Four Generals, Four Scandals, and a Sprawling Rape Case

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Photo: Corbis, Corbis, AP, Corbis

While most of us are preoccupied with news from the Middle East or menu planning for Thanksgiving, hard-charging feminist lawyer Gloria Allred is doing her part to keep the Petraeus scandal alive. Today, like a moth to the media flame, she hosted a press conference on behalf of Jill Kelley's twin sister, Natalie Khawam, who’s locked in a custody battle. The connection to Petraeus? He wrote a letter of support in Khawam’s case. Khawam is “deeply appreciative that Petraeus and his family has continued to love and support her,” Allred said.

Meanwhile, in a far more egregious case of a woman standing by a discredited general, the wife of Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, who is accused of rape and sexual misconduct, blamed the “open-ended war” for her husband’s actions. "My husband has been home five years out of the last eleven," she told Reuters. "There's less time for families to be families."

It’s become clear we’ve got a general problem. There’s General Petraeus’s long-running affair with Paula Broadwell. There’s Kelley’s would-be paramour General John Allen, with whom she exchanged “flirtatious” e-mails. Another general, William Ward, was demoted last week for spending more than $80,000 in government money on everything from rooms at the Waldorf-Astoria to a layover in Bermuda. And Jeffrey Sinclair is accused of not just pedestrian offenses like “adultery” and “possession of pornography” but also raping his subordinates. No wonder Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has called for a military ethics review on how to encourage “value-based decision making” among senior officers. “It's easy to become impressed with yourself when everybody around you salutes you, you have an airplane at your disposal or — I mean, it's easy to — as I say, I'll use the term, drink your own bathwater,” retired Marine General Carl Mundy told NPR on Saturday.

From an outside perspective, it certainly seems that the code of conduct could use some review. Consider the outcomes of these recent ethical snafus involving top generals: Accused of adultery? Lose your job. Accused of stealing from the government ? Lose a star. Accused of a violent crime against a woman? We-e-ell, we’ll have to reassign you to a new base while we investigate this act that we shall euphemistically call “forced sex.”

With Petraeus, Allen, and Sinclair all making headlines at the same time, there’s been a disturbing conflation of their ethical lapses — most notably by Rebecca Sinclair, who links the disgraced men together in TV interviews and a guest column for the Washington Post. It is testament to the military’s bizarre codes of honor that an act of sexual violence — a crime from which survivors sometimes spend their whole lives recovering — could be mentioned in the same breath as marital deceit. Military prosecutors are throwing the book at Sinclair, who has been charged with more than two dozens sexual offenses, ranging from “forcible sodomy” to “possession of pornography.” Only in the military does “throwing the book” at an alleged rapist also involve discussing the Playboy under his mattress.

Maybe there’s no way to create a coherent code of ethics in an institution designed to sanction some types of killing and to condemn others. Maybe that moral dissonance makes its way into every decision, distorting the military’s approach to situations that have little connection to the battlefield and creating a world in which downloading porn is condemned but there’s little incentive to call a rape a rape — let alone support the survivors, prosecute the cases properly, or change the fact that one in five military women has been sexually assaulted. Even Panetta recognizes it’s an “outrage.”

If there’s any silver lining to this overly broad mess of a conversation about military sexual ethics, it’s the opportunity to discuss crimes against women in uniform. Of course, Natalie Khawam’s custody battle has exactly nothing to do with the story of the West Point cadet who says her punishment for reporting an assault was being forced to take out her attacker’s trash. Or the Marine who says, after a rape, a superior told her, “Don't come bitching to me because you had sex and changed your mind,” before she was diagnosed with a personality disorder and discharged. But as long as we’re wading through the code of ethics and questioning the generals’ priorities, the latter two are the offenses we should be pushing to the fore. I anxiously await Gloria Allred’s press conference on the subject.