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Sunday, November 18, 2012

About the Generals

Three current or former generals are in the news: David Petraeus, John Allen, and Kip Ward. What's going on?

The easiest to address, and the story that troubles me most, is Ward. His career ended because he ran up egregiously excessive travel expenses. I've seen this happen in the private sector. Although it's possible that someone who had always strictly adhered to policy suddenly became profligate, the more likely scenario is that Ward had been stepping farther over the line for years -- but no one said anything. Ward is to blame and has been held accountable, yet I wonder: if my scenario of a progressive loss of self-discipline is correct, where was the oversight from DOD and his operational chain of command? Did they set the proper tone and exercise the proper diligence? Leadership must be active, not passive. If a superior acquiesces in the misdeeds of a subordinate, the superior has transgressed too. That's fundamental in both the private and military sectors.

As a byproduct of the investigation of Petraeus' extramarital affair, reports say that Allen exchanged emails of an allegedly questionable nature with a woman to whom he is not married and who has only an informal connection with the military. Allen at present denies wrongdoing. Initial reports said the number of emails was in the thousands, but subsequent reports have narrowed the number to as few as five -- a whopping difference that hasn't gotten much airtime in the last 48 hours. The emails have not been released to the public and perhaps never will be, despite a clamor for salacious detail from the press. An Inspector General will decide whether the emails sent by Allen himself crossed the line. If they did, Allen's career will end prematurely. I'm satisfied to leave it there.

Lastly, Petraeus. I've read nothing to impeach his behavior in uniform, unless one opposes military action in the Middle East on principle. His trouble began after he went to the CIA. However, expectations of conduct were not canceled when Petraeus left the military. People who run intelligence agencies are obliged to behave. We can't have the leaders of our intelligence agencies vulnerable to blackmail. Also, the rank-and-file intelligence operatives who face moral dilemmas on the job -- just as men and women in the military do -- must believe that their superiors are moral actors. (Remember Allende and Pinochet?) There is further an allegation that Petraeus breached the rules of the National Command Authority structure. For all these reasons it was proper for Petraeus to resign immediately and for President Obama to accept the resignation immediately. Was Petraeus temporarily disequillibriated upon leaving the military? It's not an excuse but a potential explanation of behavior that's difficult to understand otherwise.

Defense Secretary Panetta has asked for a review of ethics training. That's appropriate, as is reminding everyone that no general's behavior is above scrutiny. But let's not overreact by treating all high-ranking officers with suspicion. In the course of my professional career I have met generals and admirals. One was still in uniform; the others had retired and moved into the private sector. All of them were smart, conscientious, and disciplined.