Brad Hirschfield Live: General malfunction?

Nov 16, 2012

Are recent stories about generals David Petraeus and John Allen an indication of some larger problem in out military leadership, or just cases of garden variety misbehavior making the news because the actors, not their actions are noteworthy?

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Do we have a "General malfunction"?  Is something fundamentally broken in the leadership of the US military?  What is really going on?


Are you cncerned about the implications of the unfolding stories involving Generals Petraeus and Allen?  Even if there were no breaches of national security, have these men damaged our national efficacy?  Or, as others claim, is this simply another round of stories featuring men behaving badly?


Let's go!

With the presumption that Gen. Petraeus took typical Christian marriage vows as part of his wedding ceremony, how could he be trusted in a meaningful way on serious issues again? He made the strongest promise a person could make before God, his family, and his friends and then deliberately and repeatedly broke that promise. There is a reason oath-breaking has been considered one of the most serious transgressions a person can commit. I'm reminded of Luke 16:10 "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much"

You make an important point, but one which should only be pushed so far.  There can be no doubt about the fact that various forms of betrayal are certainly related, and that having breached trust with his wife, it is more difficult to trust a person with other matters.


That said, do we not all make disticntions in our lives which allow us to function differently in different settings?  And could one not also imagine that things had broken down in his personal life such that the relationship was damaged, but that things in his public life were still solid.

There is only one word to describe General Petraeus: hypocrite. According to the Miltary Religious Freedom Foundation website, Petraeus was a big promoter of "Spiritual Fitness" of military personnel. Count me as someone who takes a dim view of people who preach "personal reponsibility" and "morality" and then get caught with their pants down.

I too find it terribly disappointing, but think that we should be careful not to confuse one action with the sum total of a person's identity or character.  That's not excuse making on the General's behalf, just a cautionary note about how we understand what happened here and how to make such things less likely in the future.


In fact, it seems that people often argue for systems and rules to deal with those issues with which they themselves have the greatest challenges.  That, and we tend to notice most, those stories in which we detect contradiction and the unexpected.

Sex, love and jealousy are timeless. I remember reading a story once about how the Greeks went to war with the Trojans because somebody stole somebody else's wife, or something.

Indeed.  Of course, what makes these stories so powerful over time is that when people in power betray personal relationships, there can be far-reaching, and sometimes even devastating consequences.  That was certainly the case in your example from ancient Greece and Troy.


While it seems that there were no such consequences in the more recent cases with our own military leadership, it drags down an entire institution when it most respected and powerful leaders betray the trust of those they love and those they lead.

Oh please. Christians lie all the time. They break the law, cheat on their spouses, cheat on their taxes. Don't exagerate the drama to further your political cause.

Of course Christians lie, as do Jews, Muslims, Athiests, etc.  The importance of telling the truth, and the fact that people fall short in that regard, are both fundamental to human experience.  About that, we agree.  And beyond that, I am not sure what your point is.


The "drama" as you refer to it is about the fact that two of the US military's most senior commanders failed to uphold the standards of honestly, integrity and faithfulness that are fundamental to the execution of the jobs, and to the role of any person who has such enormous power.  If that isn't dramatic, what is?

Is military life partly to blame? Do you think stress of war leads service members to engage in self-destructive behavior?

I don't know that military life is to blame, as studies indicate that the incidence of marital infidelity among active military personel is no higher than it is among the general (no pun intended) population.  And if those studies are correct, that is rather remarkable, especially when one considers the prolonged absences, the stresses of war, and all of the other unique challenges faced by military couples.


If anything, I think that this story reminds us both of the importance of fidelity in all areas of life, especially for those in power, and of the fact that those in the military do a surprisngly good job, in most cases, of rising to that challenge.

I'm more concerned about the fact that this is being used to fill the 24 hour news cycle. Yes, Petraeus admitted to an affair, and that's bad news. He took accountability and did what he thought was the right thing. Gen Allen, on the other hand, is being dragged through the mud because of some "possibly inappropriate" e-mails. The President and SecDef are both standing behind him and saying that there is no evidence that he's done anything wrong. Yet the media still brings his name into the "sex scandal" and implies that he had an affair as well. And let's not even get into the harm this is doing to all of the families involved.

I appreciate both your concern for General Allen, and the distinction you make between the cases, which for now at least are not identical.  They are, however, simillar and related.


There seems to be broad agreement already about the "suggestive" nature of the messages shared between General Allen and Jill Kelley.  In addition, one has to wonder about the General's decision to spend the amount of time needed to generate tens of thousands of pages of email with this woman, while he was busy commanding all forces in Afghanistan! 

I doubt any of us could be able to justify everything we've done in our lives if it all was subject to a magnifying glass. But when you actively desire power and fame, this scrutiny comes with the territory. Millions of people have done what Petraeus have done, but then again, millions of people are not the Director of the CIA.

I think you are correct on all three counts.

1. Nobody's life should be reduced to a single act or misdeed.

2. None of us is perfect. (Though appreciating that is not an excuse, nor does it get one a free pass when they misbehave.)

3. The greater the power one has, the higher the level of personal responsability they must assume.

The small community hospital here serves about 3,500 people. They recently let one doctor go for "womanizing" and are trying to get an anesthesiologist back that has been caught anesthetizing himself - twice. I think they dismissed the wrong doctor. It's hard enough to get someone to serve rural areas. Racism may have played a part. Shouldn't we consider people's ability to serve in the roles that they have taken rather than their moral strengths or shortcomings?

We should, though we need a sophisticated understanding of service, when we do so.  For example, the doctor who was let go for womanizing -- was that "simply" a matter of being unfaithful to his wife, or as I suspect, did it involve his behavior in the workplace, especially with subordinates, or even patients?  any doctor who would abuse those kinds of realtionships is a doctor whose capacity to serve well, should be questioned, even if they have strong technical expertise.  Service is not simply defined by technique.


As to a doc who is abusing drugs, I cannot imagine that they should be kept on, whether they "womanize", are techincally proficient, or anything else.  They may be able to get help and return to work later, but for the time being....I think not.

is a reader saying the general could never be trusted again. He may not be head of the CIA, but he can be trusted again because that is part of the human condition: morals, failure, growth and trust.

Certainly correct.  Trust lost, should not be the same as trust forever lost.  And even if there are some areas in which one may never be fully trustworthy again, to apply that to all areas of life, especially in a case like this, is simply foolish and vindictive.

You said: "The "drama" as you refer to it is about the fact that two of the US military's most senior commanders failed to uphold the standards of honestly, integrity and faithfulness that are fundamental to the execution of the jobs, and to the role of any person who has such enormous power." Let's be careful here: only ONE of the military's most senior commanders failed to uphold the standards. Gen Allen's name is in this, there is an investigation. Innocent until proven guilty, right? There is no evidence that he has done anything wrong.

You would be right if this were only about who had sex with whom, and when.  But it is about much more, and at the very least, General Allen used remarkably poor judgement in how he conducted himself, and allocated his time and energy in ways that cannot be thought of well, especially given the enormous responsibilties he had.


As I wrote before, the two cases are certainly NOT identical, but they are related.

claiming he can do his job because he broke his marriage vows in his private life. If that were true, half the working population would have to quit their jobs.

Depends on the job.  Some jobs require maintaining unusually high levels of trust.  Others, such as those in the military, actually prohibit adulterous behavior.  That may be outmoded and prudish, but it is one of the terms of employment.


So, you are certainly correct about the fact that we should not always connect sexual or marital fidelty with responsability at work, but neither should be pretend that all jobs are equal.

No, they're not similar. At all. The tens of thousands of pages of emails include conversations where every new email was printed out, with the chain behind it. Not tens of thousands of emails. And reports have also said that many of the emails were between Jill Kelley and Mrs Allen with Gen Allen cced, or Jill and Gen Allen with Mrs Kelley cced. Petraeus admitted to an affair. Allen has not even been accused of having an affair, just of possible inappropriate communications, which, if you listen to the higher ups, are looking more and more like they were not inappropriate at all. BIG difference.

Like many people intent on pushing a good point too far, you confuse the fact of two things being differnt -- your observation at the end, and one which is correct -- with the fact that said difference means that there is no remaining similarity.  About that, you are simply wrong.

That's what i don't get: how do such successful people find TIME to cheat so much. I can barely work 40 hours a week, get the groceries and keep my house sorta together. I am stunned by the logistics rather than the morality.

When one is a public official, logistics IS morality.  In fact, that point could always be made when one uses the workplace for their own personal purposes, but it something about which those who work in government and/or the military must be especially careful about.

Come, now, Rabbi Hirschfield. Why focus on an adulterer and possibly another one and try to imply that they damaged our national effiicacy. The real ethical issue is that Ambassador Rice, Hilary Clinton, and President Obama insisted that the attack on the embassy was based on a video when it clearly wasn't. This false information gave the American public the impression that we are safe as long as no videos criticizing Islam are produced. I have friends in Israel who were also concerned about the USA's false info. I am surprised that a man of God, such as yourself, would focus on the sexual matter when the real issue is false information by the US government. (I realize you won't answer this post because it may be too ethically challenging for you.)

I am entirely happy to respond to your post because you are NOT engaged in ethical inquiry, but it politics and moralizing.  In truth, I am focusing on the issue at hand, because it has implications for all of us, and is not simplistic.


What does it mean to fail in one part of one's life, but remain stellar in others?

How do people balance the different obligations they have -- at home, at work, to their own self-interest?

How accountable should people be held for any one failing?

How do issues of trust becoming increasingly serious as one obtains greater power?


This ISN'T about sex, as you suggest, it's about trust.  And ironically, so are the issues about which you are most concerned.


seems to make people think they're invinceable

I think you are coorect that often times, people become convinced of their own invinceability.  Ironcially though, to some extent at least, that is EXACTLY what you want from someone who leads others into harm's way.  And there in lies the rub which makes these story so important.  On some level at least, the very thing which makes a military leader great, can be the same thing which leads to their undoing.  My take?  The more aware of that both they and the rest of us are, the less likely such things are to occur and the calmer we are likely to be when they do.

Now, because of technology, I know. Aren't we somewhat cursed with too much information about stuff that may be none of our business?

We definitely live in a world which affords us access to more data than we can often process usefully and productively.  I fact, were someone to ask me the larger purpose of this weekly conversation, I would answer just that.  Our purpose here is to be a bit wiser and more productive with our use of the endless flow of information we receive on a daily basis.

Well, our hour is at hand, and my hands are tired.  As always, thanks for your participation.


Don't forget that we can continue the conversation when you friend me on facebook, and fllow me on twitter @bradhirschfield.


"Til next week,


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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