Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Honor, ethics, and the UCMJ

I've been waiting for things to calm down a bit before commenting on GEN Petraeus's resignation. We're not quite there yet, but I think there is an important element of this discussion not being had. I don't necessarily see his affair as the catalyst to review his record as a commander in Iraq and Afghanistan (mixed results), debate the legitimacy and wisdom of counterinsurgency as propagated by him (a very complicated answer), or the demise of the general officer corps in general (we'll be okay). The first will be debated by historians for decade to come, the second is an on-going discussion that has nothing to do with extra-marital affairs, and the latter is yet to be seen once the officers commissioned in the 1970s are retired (I'll save my different-generations-of-generals lecture for another time).

There are a couple of issues directly related to the affair itself.  There have been some who have suggested that GEN Petraeus should not have resigned as the Director of Central Intelligence over his affair. Tom Ricks has been among the most vocal of this group, arguing that GEN Petraeus's actions had nothing to do with competency and that his decisions were about personal ethics. This has been countered in the main with the argument that cleared officials who have affairs are prime targets for blackmail, therefore becoming a risk to national security. There is a lot of merit to this, but it doesn't exact scratch Tom's itch and frankly, I don't find this plausible (in the specific case of GEN Petraeus). Yet, I feel strongly that resigning was exactly what GEN Petraeus should have done and for the reason he said he did: it was the honorable thing to do.

After graduating from West Point in 1974, GEN Petraeus served in the Army for over 37 years. All of those years he was subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, in which adultery is a crime under Article 134. For many of those years, GEN Petraeus served as a commander, including almost every year as a general from 1999 until his retirement in 2011. As such, GEN Petraeus not only was required to uphold military law, he was an enforcer of those laws as a courts martial convening authority. I wonder how many courts martial he convened, or discharges he signed, that included adultery charges. After 37 years of living by the standards set in UCMJ, continuing to serve in high office after having violated one of the articles himself would be hypocrisy of the first order. He violated the ethics of the institution he spent nearly all of his life serving, ethics which he was a standard-bearer and enforcer. In military service, ethics are a significant part professional competency and you cannot dissociate the two. The only honorable thing left for him to do was to resign.


  1. Petraeus did not resign of his own volition. Clapper told him to.

  2. I think the UCMJ angle is irrelevant, actually--he was no longer in the military.

    Rather the standard that should be applied is that of the CIA, where having an affair is grounds for having your clearance suspended (although not necessarily revoked). After all, systematically lying to your nearest and dearest hardly says good things about your trustworthiness, quite apart from the blackmail angle. Failing to volunteer the information to your boss (in the hopes he won't hear from the FBI) doesn't help either.

    It seems to me untenable not to hold DCI to the same standard (or, preferably, a higher standard) than the organization he leads.

    1. I agree with that, even if the CIA says that affairs are not necessarily reasons for suspension or expulsion. My argument is not that he is/was subject to UCMJ (of note, there is a school of thought that he still is as a retired general), but rather that as a standard-bearer of UCMJ his entire adult life that it would have been hypocritical for him to remain in high office after conduct that would have been a violation. I'm suggesting principle trumps legality here, which I think you agree with here in your last sentence.

  3. Aw, this was a really quality post. In theory I'd like to write like this too - taking time and real effort to make a good article... but what can I say... I procrastinate alot and never seem to get something done.
    online test for bitsat


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.