Marine Gen. John Allen, left, meets with Army Gen. David Petraeus in July 2011, prior to Allen assuming command of ISAF-Afghanistan from Petraeus. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says emails sent by Allen to a woman involved in the Petraeus sex scandal have triggered their own probe. (Navy)
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For many troops, it came as no shock to learn that Marine Gen. John Allen was taking time away from his job as commander of the Afghanistan War to trade allegedly racy emails with a 37-year-old socialite from Florida.
The real surprise was that a four-star officer came under serious scrutiny for such actions.
"It's about time those guys get caught doing something," said one Army captain, who requested anonymity before speaking about senior commanders. "Not that I'm wishing ill on anyone, but for quite some time, a flag officer or a general officer in our force has been almost untouchable."
Allen has denied any wrongdoing, yet the revelation Nov. 11 that he is facing a Defense Department Inspector General probe into potential misconduct is the latest in a series of senior officer missteps that have roiled the military up and down the chain of command.
The string of public embarrassments, alleged crimes and administrative violations has eroded morale and cast a spotlight on the military's senior leadership and its accountability.
These days, the Pentagon IG substantiates complaints against senior military officials about once a week, on average. The IG has seen a spike in complaints of misconduct by senior officials — defined as O-6s and above — in recent years and is adding dozens of new staffers to handle the increased workload.
The issue has sparked concern at the highest levels. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Nov. 15 that he has launched a formal review of "instances when senior officers have not lived up to the standards expected of them."
Panetta ordered a Pentagon review of "how to better foster a culture of stewardship among our most senior military officers" and expects to send results to the White House in December.
But some experts say focusing on this latest spate of comparatively minor misbehavior misses the point and fails to address a broader crisis of leadership in today's military.
"If I were a soldier, I would be demoralized that people are paying more attention to the private lives of generals than the real lives of soldiers," said Tom Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and author of "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today."
Military leaders may sometimes face probes of their personal conduct, but rarely for their professional failures or strategic mistakes, Ricks said.
The best example, he said, may be the flawed leadership in the early years of the Iraq War: "We had a series of mediocre generals in Iraq … yet nobody thought that was a scandal."
Fall of an icon
Washington was stunned by reports Nov. 9 that retired Army Gen. David Petraeus had resigned from his post as director of the CIA because of an extramarital affair with his biographer, Army Reserve officer and West Point graduate Paula Broadwell.
The affair reportedly began after Petraeus left active duty last year and lasted for several months.
Questions remain about whether Broadwell may have obtained classified information from Petraeus or his computer, prompting a response from President Obama at his first post-election news conference Nov. 14.
"I have no evidence at this point from what I've seen that classified information was disclosed" by the Petraeus scandal, Obama said.
But the episode may jeopardize Petraeus' security clearance and limit his ability to work on sensitive national security matters from the private sector.
The FBI discovered the affair during an investigation that found Broadwell was sending threatening emails to another woman, Jill Kelley, a Tampa, Fla., socialite.
Broadwell reportedly viewed Kelley as a rival for Petraeus' attention and told her to stay away from him. Petraeus has denied any affair with Kelley.
Kelley and her husband, Scott, a surgeon, were known to throw lavish parties at their Tampa mansion hosting top military brass from nearby MacDill Air Force Base, headquarters of both U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command.
But the scandal took an even stranger turn when the Pentagon revealed the FBI investigation also had found a link to Allen.
In addition to the anonymous emails Broadwell reportedly sent to Kelley, she also sent one to Allen in May cautioning him to stay away from Kelley. Broadwell sent that email just days before Allen planned to meet with Kelley in Washington while he was there to testify before Congress on the Afghanistan War.
The FBI later found "20,000 to 30,000" pages of emails exchanged between Allen and Kelley, starting in 2010, when Allen was serving in Tampa as CENTCOM deputy commander.
A defense official described the emails as "flirtatious" and said the Pentagon's IG has opened an investigation that will determine whether they amount to a violation of military law governing "conduct unbecoming an officer."
Allen remains the commanding general of the Afghanistan War, and Obama has expressed confidence and support for him. Yet his nomination for the prestigious post of Supreme Allied Commander, Europe is on hold, and his confirmation hearing before Congress, which had been scheduled for Nov. 15, was postponed.
Bad week for the brass
Amid all that, the Pentagon also announced Nov. 13 that the former head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. William "Kip" Ward, was stripped of a star and ordered to repay taxpayers some $82,000 for abusing his travel privileges and expense accounts.
In January 2011, he and his 12-person entourage made an 11-day trip to Washington and Atlanta, where he conducted less than three days of official business. The trip cost taxpayers nearly $130,000, according to the IG.
On another trip, he told his staff to refuel in Bermuda, where he and his wife stayed in a $750-a-night hotel suite.
Days before the announcement about Ward, the Pentagon released an IG report Nov. 8 that found another four-star officer had abused military travel privileges.
Adm. James Stavridis, the top-ranking U.S. and NATO military officer in Europe, was rebuked for telling his staff to fire up a military Gulfstream jet so he, his wife and several staffers could fly from their duty station in Belgium to a vineyard in France for dinner.
They joined a crowd of wealthy French power brokers at a winery in Burgundy. The French defense minister attended, but for Stavridis to claim that trip as official business was a stretch, according to the IG, which concluded he "improperly used MilAir for unofficial travel without approval."
Ultimately, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus didn't discipline Stavridis. But the investigation's mere existence took him off the short list for several top Pentagon jobs. He had previously been mentioned as a possible chief of naval operations or chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
And at Fort Bragg, N.C., a one-star officer faced a rare Article 32 hearing this month.
Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair could go to prison if court-martialed on allegations that include forcible sodomy. The hearing featured testimony from a female Army officer, who recalled resisting while Sinclair gripped her neck and forced her to perform oral sex.
Another witness quoted Sinclair saying: "I'm a general. I'll do what the [expletive] I want."
Sexual misconduct allegations also derailed another candidate for the military's top job last year. Marine Gen. James Cartwright was known as "Obama's favorite general" and a top contender to replace Adm. Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
But many believe he was crossed off the list because of an IG investigation into an incident involving a female subordinate who passed out drunk in his hotel room on an overseas trip in 2009.
The IG report in February 2011 cleared him of sexual misconduct but criticized him for "fostering an unduly familiar relationship."
Cartwright retired soon after.
Reaction in the ranks
For each top commander accused of misconduct, there are thousands, or even tens of thousands, of troops who have served under them, met them and felt a personal connection to them. For example, one Army staff sergeant said he was stunned to learn about the demotion of Ward.
"I was shocked — that guy was one of the nicest people I've ever met," the staff sergeant told Military Times, recalling a time working under Ward in Europe when the general greeted him warmly and asked after his wife by name. "I was personally kind of hurt that he did it … it seemed really out of character."
While reactions from troops to such news can run the gamut, such incidents can erode morale, said Donald Chisholm, a professor at the Naval War College who has studied officers.
"Some will say that it's silly, these guys are good at their jobs, leave them alone. Others will express disappointment. I can't think it's good for morale either way," Chisholm said.
Some try to simply ignore such news and focus on their own jobs.
"For the most part, we don't care about these guys," said one Navy captain. "They don't affect our daily lives. They don't get us more repair parts or underway time."
The past few weeks have reminded many troops of how rare it has become to see any discipline of top officers. Unit-level commanding officers are routinely fired for personal and professional failures — the Navy in particular fires about one in every 100 COs before they complete their command tours — but officers who pin on a star seem to enter a zone of protection.
"It's ludicrous that our O-5 and O-6 COs have 1 percent failures, but somehow our flags don't. Based on pure math, we should see three to five flag officers relieved for something each year," the Navy captain said. "We see, what, one?"
When it does occur, discipline faced by the highest-ranking officers often comes after saying the wrong thing to the wrong person.
Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal was fired as commander of the Afghanistan War in 2010 after disparaging key political figures to a Rolling Stone reporter.
And Adm. William Fallon was pressured to resign as CENTCOM chief after telling a writer for Esquire magazine that he disagreed with President George W. Bush's aggressive stance on Iran.
But it's rare for any top general or flag officer to face public reproach for making mistakes or showing poor judgment.
Ricks noted that Army Gen. Tommy Franks was widely criticized for his handling of Iraq in the critical months following the fall of Baghdad, yet he later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And Army Gen. George Casey led the Iraq War from 2004 to 2007, a time when many critics now say the mission went adrift — yet he became Army chief of staff.
"Being a general these days is like being a university professor with tenure: You keep your job as long as you keep your pants on and don't embarrass the institution," Ricks said.
One key exception may be retired Army Gen. David McKiernan, whose stint as commander of the Afghanistan War was cut short by Obama in June 2009.
Some military officials said he was fired for being an old-school officer who failed to adapt to and aggressively pursue newer, counterinsurgency-style strategies.
The scandals among the brass come at a time when the public's tremendous faith in the military as an institution may be slipping.
Annual Gallup polls consistently show that people express a high level of confidence in the military as an institution when compared with others such as "the church," "big business" or Congress.
That peaked in 2009 when about 82 percent of Americans expressed "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military.
Yet the figure fell to 75 percent this year, a level similar to that seen in 2006, when the public grew critical of the military's handling of the Iraq War.
For the public, the latest ethical lapses may suggest the military is not unique and its leaders are subject to the same challenges faced by civilians in powerful positions.
"It's an old narrative: Those at the top often become poisoned by their power," said Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. "We've unfortunately seen the same thing in business, politics, sports, on a regular basis. The difference is, I guess, we've come to expect the worst in these other once-respected institutions, even the church."
Whether the recent spike in senior officer investigations by the Pentagon IG office reflects a rise in actual misconduct or an increase in reports or complaints is unclear.
In some respects, standards of conduct evolve with society. Many of today's top officers entered service in the 1970s, when there were few women in the ranks, private lives were considered more private, and there was less scrutiny of bureaucratic procedures such as travel regulations.
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, is widely believed to have had an intimate relationship with his female driver and secretary, Army Capt. Kay Summersby, when he was the supreme allied commander in World War II.
"In today's digital world, it's a lot harder to get away with these things. I'm not sure Ike could carry on with Kay Summersby in today's environment," Ricks said.
Some of today's senior misconduct also may be a symptom of the same relentless operational tempo that has worn out so many enlisted troops and junior officers since 9/11.
"They are human. Fatigue can set in. It can skew judgment," said retired Maj. Gen. Douglas Carver, chief of Army chaplains from 2007 to 2011 "I've counseled general officers who have suffered depression or post-traumatic stress … and what they are in need of is soul repair."