Bad military policy botched Ralston bid

Gen. Joseph Ralston’s decision to withdraw from contention to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was the only responsible course of action, given public outrage over the recent handling of adultery cases in the military. His candidacy was a lost cause from the moment he acknowledged that he had committed adultery earlier in his career. Neither the Congress nor the American people could ignore a sexual infraction by one of its top generals — regardless of how innocuous that conduct might have seemed to his supporters — when officers of lower rank have been forced out of service for similar offenses.
Some good, however, has materialized from the Ralston derailing. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen announced last week that an independent panel will study how the military deals with adultery and other consensual sexual relations involving its members. The failure of the current policies can be assessed by the recent loss or punishment of three talented officers, all for reasons arising out of consensual but adulterous affairs with civilians. First came Lt. Kelly Flinn, the first woman to pilot a B-52, whose affair with a married civilian was reported to authorities by a serviceman facing sexual offense charges himself. She was forced to resign after lying about the affair to investigators and disobeying an order to break it off. Then there was Maj. Gen. John Longhouser, a highly decorated soldier who headed the Aberdeen Proving Ground, who was forced to retire after a tipster revealed his affair with a civilian while he was separated from his wife five years ago. And now Ralston has dropped out of the running to become the nation’s top military officer after disclosing that he had a consensual affair with a civilian CIA analyst 13 years ago when he too was separated from his wife. If it weren’t for the Flinn imbroglio, the Ralston nomination would have sailed through Congress. Even now, there is little dispute that there is no one more qualified for the job. But most of the nation’s legislators weren’t willing to challenge the public’s belief that Cohen’s continued support for his nominee was symbolic of the military’s double standard. There are, however, crucial differences between the Flinn and Ralston cases. Although adultery was one of the court-martial charges facing Flinn, she also made false sworn statements and disobeyed direct orders. Flinn’s relationship with an airman a couple of years ago also broke the ancient military rule against fraternization. Ralston, in contrast, had an affair with a civilian, and he didn’t lie to the military or disobey orders. Clearly, the incident didn’t threaten to curtail his ability to carry out his duties. Because of the special conditions of life in the military, where discipline and order are paramount, restrictions against adultery or fraternization that could cause morale problems and loss of authority are certainly appropriate. Reformed policies must distinguish sexual misconduct that undermines a unit’s capacity to execute its missions from sexual relations between consenting adults that have no direct bearing on job performance or the maintenance of authority. Where discipline and order are not affected, the private consensual relations of men and women in the military should be their own business and no one else’s.