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Jewish World Review / July 24, 1998 / 1 Menachem-Av, 5758

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Making the military
more like us

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE WILLIAM COHEN announced last week that the military's standards on adultery were too harsh and ought to be reformed. Under the new Cohen standard, adultery will remain a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but it will be prosecuted only when it interferes with the smooth functioning of a military unit or disrupts morale.

In an approving editorial, The New York Times declared: "The mores and values of military life are by necessity somewhat different from those of the civilian world. But the gap cannot be so great as to create a sense that the military is completely out of step with life outside."

Or with life at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., eh? Even if there were a good case to be made for softening the military's anti-adultery rules, this administration ought to be ashamed to raise the matter. The snickers this new policy evokes are already audible around the world.

"Seems like they want the White House Intern policy in the Army, Navy and Marines, too. Ho ho," observed one Clinton-watcher. Or perhaps the president, recalling his pleading in the Paula Jones case, really believes he is on active duty in the military by virtue of being commander in chief and worries that Ken Starr might prosecute him for adultery, as well perjury. (The president's lawyers floated the argument that the commander in chief should be immune from civil suits under the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act, which protects active duty servicemen from civil suits.)

The military services each treat adultery in their own fashion, and there has been some grumbling that officers are treated more leniently than enlisted men. Still, the new policy has met resistance, most vehemently from the Marine Corps. "'Semper Fidelis' (always faithful) is not just a slogan," Col. Stuart Wagner told The New York Times.

If the military's harsh approach toward infidelity is out of step with civilian life, so much the worse for civilian life. But the military also has different priorities. Adultery by its very nature represents a threat to morale and discipline. Two-thirds of the members of the military are married. Wives and husbands (female soldiers exist, though one may still hold the line at combat) provide support and security that make their spouses better soldiers.

Particularly in the age of a sex-integrated military, spouses need to know that adultery is treated as a serious crime. Under current rules, adultery can lead to a dishonorable discharge, in which the guilty party loses all pensions and other benefits. Under the Cohen standard, it would lead only to a bad-conduct discharge, with no loss of benefits.

Adultery is forbidden for some of the same reasons that fraternization is -- to prevent even the appearance of unfairness or favoritism. When a commander has the lives of his men (and, alas, women) in his hands, his subordinates must trust that his orders are given without fear or favor. If your commanding officer orders you to take the next hill, you must trust that he is doing so for sound military reasons, and not because he is sleeping with your wife and would like to see an end of you.

Still, the Pentagon may be fighting a rear-guard action in a battle already lost. What Cohen cannot see is that loose sexual mores are already shredding morale and discipline in the military. The sexual-harassment problem, about which the Pentagon professes to be concerned, could not exist in a society that still valued virginity among women and honor among men.

To alter the rules about adultery now, in the face of embarrassing scandals like that of 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn and Gen. Joseph Ralston, sends a signal that lying and betrayal are regarded by the military just as they are by civilians, as peccadilloes, not character flaws.

The truth is that in civilian life, we no longer believe in character at all. If people behave badly, we never blame bad character. We blame a bad environment, genes or addiction. The military was the last holdout for standards of honor and self-command -- and the military's abandonment of these will be a loss that reverberates beyond the services themselves.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.