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Petraeus Scandal and Honor Codes

Ann Marlowe

The fall of General Petraeus, like that of his onetime protégé Stanley McChrystal, is an example of how the behavior of people in leadership positions hasn’t changed in thousands of years—but the penalty for it has. In a word, people are led by their emotions and make stupid mistakes, and now it’s easier to catch them. We have become better at catching evidence of stupidity—but we haven’t become less stupid. 

This lag is responsible for what seems like the increasing volume of scandals reported by the media. Even as we were digesting the Petraeus details, it came out that a four-star Marine general, William Ward, has been demoted for lavish spending. Yesterday, it came out that the current US commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, is now being investigated for sending a large number of e-mails to Jill Kelley, the woman whose reporting of threatening e-mails from Paula Broadwell to the FBI set in motion the investigation of Broadwell.

The foreign policy and national security angle on this is, most obviously, that more and more senior figures will be revealed to have feet of clay. A secondary consequence, more interesting philosophically, is that the culture of impunity that has surrounded our senior military leaders since 9/11 can quickly become toxic when mixed with timeless human error and new communications technology…

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