The barrage of commentary about the David Petraeus affair offers a full circle of opinion, from shock and disgust that such a widely admired and respected figure would engage in sordid adultery to sympathy toward service members who are torn from their families and sent to remote, isolated locations where constant danger and lonely boredom intersect. The latter perspective reminded me of the far less prolonged and less isolated experience I had in Coast Guard Officer Candidate School.
OCS combined the fundamentals of basic military training with some sophisticated education on navigation (the old way, without GPS), international law, weaponry, military organization and leadership. Part of the educational strategy is to crush individuality and create a team concept, where every man (there were only men in those days) would take care of his shipmates. Many of us left families behind. All were forbidden contact with wives or girlfriends for the first week and had only restricted contact after that.
For a bunch of 22-year-olds, isolation from the opposite sex was one of the more severe challenges. I still remember conversations with my colleagues about the women who served in the mess hall. These civilian employees were not great beauties, and they had almost no interaction with the officer candidates standing in the chow line. Very few, if any of us, would have given these women a second look in the first couple of weeks of OCS. But by the third month, several of us jokingly agreed, the women behind the steam table looked a lot better than they had those first weeks.
For soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors on year-long deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan, the civilian women or the female soldiers in unflattering camouflage uniforms had to begin looking more and more attractive as the months wore on. Americans should not be so shocked if their service members, facing hardships unfathomable to most of us, suffer lapses in judgment. Such submissions to carnal desires have been part of the military life since the days of Odysseus. Wartime deployments have always been accompanied by rises in prostitution. Although the Uniform Code of Military Justice still makes adultery a criminal offense, the law cannot change human nature.
General Petraeus has disappointed his admirers and other officers have violated their code of conduct by engaging in extra-marital affairs on lonely, hazardous deployments. Americans should not be so shocked or so judgmental about service members seeking comfort and companionship in a cruel and dangerous place.