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Adultery is Illegal in the Military? What Sort of 17th Century Puritanism is This?

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2012", please click here.)

Here’s one civilian’s take on why the military is less effective than the private sector: you can get fired for cheating on your wife.

Though we hate writing about sex scandals--as we wrote last Monday--this Petraeus fiasco has way too many interesting subplots. The most important, most telling detail that came out of the whole thing was the revelation that our innovative, technologically-superior, thoroughly-modern military still adheres to a set of rules and regulations that 18th century Puritans would find reasonable. Apparently, in the 21st century military, you can still get court martialed for cheating on your wife.

Really? Really?

Here’s a copy of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, article 134, paragraph 60. Two sections stand out. First, it opens by explaining, “(1) That the accused wrongfully had sexual intercourse with a certain person; (2) That, at the time, the accused or the other person was married to someone else...” It ends by stating, “Maximum punishment. Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 1 year.” In layman's terms, prison. For a year.

Now, one could argue that the middle section is somewhat more nuanced. Again and again, it points out that, “To constitute an offense under the UCMJ, the adulterous conduct must either be directly prejudicial to good order and discipline or service discrediting.” Except that the sentence above it reads, “Adultery is clearly unacceptable conduct...” So it doesn’t matter if the next section says that it has to affect good order; all adultery affects good order.

Somewhat softening the law, in 2002 George Bush...

“...further discouraged adultery prosecutions by issuing an executive order that clarified the circumstances that might necessitate legal action. Although the order maintained that "adultery is clearly unacceptable conduct," it also listed a variety of factors that commanders should take into consideration before proceeding with a court martial. These include the accused's rank, the impact of the affair on the involved parties' job performance, and whether any of the hanky-panky took place while the accused was on the clock.”

Except that, in 2003, the military charged Captain James Yee with adultery, not because his affair affected good order, but because they couldn’t pin anything else on him. If a law is on the books, it’s on the books. Until the military removes the law, it hasn’t really entered the 21st century.

Imagine if we applied this 18th century law to the rest of America. First off, there goes the NBA. Since they work in the public sphere, adultery actually would be “discrediting”. The NBA then wouldn’t exist...or it would and Jimmer Fredette would be its LeBron James. And in the NFL, Manti T’eo would be this year’s number one draft pick.

Hollywood? Goodbye actors. And directors. And producers. And everyone associated with filming movies from the production assistants to studio heads.

We’d have no books for kids to read in English class.

I’d guess that, at least, thirty percent of the corporations in America wouldn’t have CEOs. And at least four American presidents would have been fired. (To be fair, we tried this in the nineties.) Hell, a lot of church pulpits would go empty.

It all made me think of this quote from the Simpson’s episode where Milhouse's dad gets a divorce.

Cracker Factory Executive: Kirk, crackers are a family food, happy families. Maybe single people eat crackers, we don't know. Frankly, we don't want to know. It's a market we can do without.

Kirk: So, that's it after 20 years? "So long. Good luck?"

Cracker Factory Executive: I don't recall saying "good luck."

In short, the military is the executive at the cracker factory. Soldiers are adults. And adults have affairs. I don’t condone cheating. (Among people my age, I am more against cheating than most.) But that doesn’t mean I support laws enforcing anti-adultery regulation.

Now, I can see the counter-argument: the private sector does have checks and balances on sexual conduct. Mainly, bosses can’t pressure subordinates into having sex with them, which is a good thing. Sexual harassment is illegal and should be. Officers can’t have sex with subordinates because that’s sexual harassment. And both the public and private sector have laws against that.

But regulating everything else? Well, it’s just another example of our traditional, staid military not changing...for the worse.


For the record, I put this post in the “Military affairs” category. Zing!

In the Petraeus case, it’s kind of difficult to defend an activity by the head of an intelligence agency that, if discovered by the bad guys, could be held against him.

In the case of the military, one significant difference from between the private sector and the military: bosses in the military may have to make decisions over who has to be sent in harm’s way, at risk of death to the person being sent.

How would you feel if your boss had that kind of decision-making power, and s/he was sleeping with one of your colleagues? Any worries about who gets picked for what job when someone can die doing it?

When you get married, a promise, explicit or implicit, is made. In committing adultery, you aren’t living up to that promise. You said you would, you vowed that you would, and you didn’t.

If the adultery is carried on over a period of time, you are engaging in a pattern of intentional deceit. You are lying over and over again.

So that means that you don’t keep your promises and you will lie when you feel like it. That behavior indicates you have a weak character. When the battle comes and you tell somebody “I’ll come back for you. I promise.”, or you say “I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do.”, I think you are less likely to be believed if you have been an adulterer. You have proven that solemn vows don’t mean much and you lie regularly. So why should you be believed? Because you really really mean it this time?

This is an important thing, especially for officers. It speaks to character, and maybe the most important thing in a leader is character. At least the Germans thought so.

Now I understand that you can’t go bouncing out everybody who engages in this or have CID spend all their time staking out motels. People are flawed and you have to be a little tolerant of those flaws. But the main importance of the rule isn’t in it being a tool with which to prosecute or as a stand on morality as it pertains to marriage. The main importance of the rule is as a statement of the organization on where it stands with regards to character. The importance of character and truthtelling for soldiers and especially leaders of soldiers has not changed in the 21st century. It is just as important now as it was in the 1700s.

@ Carl – All I can say is, stay tuned for tomorrow’s post. It rebuts the main point of character.

Eric C:

Let me anticipate a bit. From the teaser about tomorrows post, I am guessing it will be a catalog of examples of dishonest and amoral behavior that were forgiven, overlooked or committed by guys who went on to brilliant careers. But that overlooks the point I am trying to make. That somebody can be a sinner and still perform isn’t the important thing. We are all sinners and yet most of us perform.

The important thing is that we recognize that certain actions are wrong. By doing that we are saying also that some things are critically important. This thing is important and you must do it. If you do not you are wrong. If we decide that because so many people do the wrong thing it shouldn’t be wrong, we in turn don’t recognize right. Then we are afloat, morally. A leader of soldiers had better have something to anchor his character to or when the storm comes he is likely to be driven onto the lee shore.

That is the importance of the rule. Its mere existence is saying that keeping promises and telling the truth is an ideal to be valued. It will often not be adhered to, but it is vitally important. Tossing the rule out would state that keeping promises and telling the truth aren’t all that important, except sometimes. Then of course it matters. But of course, it always matters.

carl, theres a difference between valuing an ideal and legislating it. legislation is neither the only nor the most effective way to promote ethical ideals.


What we do do is legislate against immorality. The criminal and civil statute books are filled with laws penalizing immoral behavior. These laws are are not the only way to promote ethical behavior, but they are a critical part of society’s dual approach to doing that. On the one hand we preach about and promote the precepts of morality. On the other we punish immoral behavior. That combined approach is the most effective ways to promote ethical ideals. You need both.

The rule must be kept. To give it up is to say lying and lack of ability to keep a promise isn’t any big deal to the military. If you wanted to go back in time and never put the rule in the book, that is one thing. But you can’t do that. The situation is as it stands now. If you were to throw out that rule, you are saying honest dealing isn’t all that important.

Eric C:

In this post you spend 4 paragraphs imagining if this law applied to the rest of society. Well…who cares? The military isn’t the rest of society. The Lakers aren’t going to make a stand on Elsenborn Ridge and the Hollywood A list isn’t going to defend Wake Island. The military is called upon to do those things.

Sometimes I suspect the posts on this blog are written just to get a reaction out of readers. If so,I just fell for it.

It’s simple as this: If a person’s spouse can’t trust them how can I?

Adultery remains illegal in the military because trust and integrity are crucial to disciline and chain of command. It’s not just a law, it’s part of a CODE. That’s what the ‘C’ stands for in UCMJ.

Adultery, theft, fraud, lying, and other such dishonorable activities violate trust (see my above statement). When stakes are life and death, the value of trust cannot be overestimated. Troops may doubt the judgment or even the competence of their superiors and still maintain order and discipline because they trust that said superiors are at least trying to do the right thing and that they respect those under their command.

But when superiors give troops cause to question their integrity, trust erodes and cohesion, order, and discipline collapse with it.

Honor didn’t come along in the 17th century. It is far older than that and will endure long after we are gone (though it may be harder to find in some times than other).

Anyone who cannot see the value of honor is destined to drown in the churning sea of moral relativism.

indeed, carl. and look how well our ethical laws regarding prostitution are benefitting our society. we don’t punish immoral behavior, we punish illegal behavior. again, there is a difference. furthermore, punishment isn’t even the only second option to your faux dichotomy. restorative justice has proven very effective; we choose to punish, not because it has proven useful but because it makes us feel better.

mathis, the C in USC also stands for “code”. i don’t suspect this is as good a point as you think it is. as for the effects of one’s personal sexual life, my experience has been the exact opposite of your claims. at least in the combat arms, no one gives a shit if the commander is cheating on his wife. god help him, however, if he appears incompetent and exercises poor judgement in combat.

I’m really excited for today’s post, when it goes up tonight. Basically, if we’re going to start enforcing a moral military, well, a lot of soldiers are going to be pissed.

And booted from the military.


No kidding, we legally punish illegal behavior not immoral behavior. But morality is the armature upon which the law is built. Stealing, hurting, lying, all immoral things that are illegal. Not to recognize that the foundation of the law is morality is sophistry.

Of course there are informal social sanctions too. Those are pretty powerful. The lying jerk in a group is in very great danger of being ostracized, a punishment.

Restorative justice is very effective you say. Hmm. I’ll tell you what. You go into a bad neighborhood and deal with some truly evil and violent people. Use restorative justice and see how well that deters those guys from beating people up when they feel like it. Punishment works with some people because some people fear only superior physical power being directed their way or the threat of it. Believe it or not.

Eric C:

You are still missing my point.


(I used to eschew caps at the beginning of sentences too, but gave it up when told often that it makes things hard for the reader.

It makes things hard for the reader.)

@ Carl – “the Hollywood A list isn’t going to defend Wake Island.”

Tell that to Jimmie Stewart, George C. Scott, Clark Gable and Alec Guiness.

First, I want to respond to RA Mathis. We don’t just write posts to get people riled up. We do, though, try to write posts that treat the Army honestly and frankly. Too many Army blogs or writing about the Army abides by one cardinal rule, “Do not offend”. Following that, it is is “be as uncritical as possible about anyone related to the Army, except for the CominChief if he is from a different party.” So we try to write thought provoking pieces that challenge that conventional wisdom.

As for the larger debate, it is interesting seeing how Carl and others distinguish between morality and trust. In other words, violations of morality (say getting in fights with strangers) is okay so long as it doesn’t violate the trust of the unit. However, I think we shouldn’t put the military on too different of a footing. Saying, “Normal rules don’t apply to the military” really is a slippery slope, and this seems like an instance of that happening.

My comment about competence meant that troops always question the competence of superiors at some point, which has happened with everyone that has ever been in charge of anything from an army group to the head fry cook on the midnight shift at McDonald’s. It did not imply that incompetence is acceptable.

Also, my remark about the code was more of an allusion to the idea of living by a consistent ‘code’ of conduct and not the changing whims of social mores.

As you have said on this blog, our military enjoys a position of great prestige. It does so because of the ‘outdated’ ideas you rail against. The military polices itself (yes, I’m know there are exceptions, so no need to throw them up) better than most organizations. It’s one of the few remaining professions that lives by a ‘code’ and punishes its members who violate it.

The Catholic priesthood used to enjoy a similar status, but fell from grace after a pattern of accepting and covering up moral corruption and abuse was revealed.

In the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. military was also perceived as immoral for several reasons, one of which was a tacit acceptance of immoral activity. It took the military decades to dig out of this morass and rebuild its credibility. Much of this was due to transitioning to an all-volunteer force and a rededication to the warrior ethos and honor code. Casting moral virtue aside would undermine integrity that has been hard won.

Speaking of the all-volunteer force: If you can’t keep your hands off others’ property, if you can’t tell the truth, if you can’t take responsibility, and if you can’t keep it in your pants…don’t sign up.

Again I ask, “If his wife can’t trust him, how can I?”

Eric C:

You got me. But you forgot some people like Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Tyrone Power, Eddie Albert (the USMC LOVED Eddie Albert), Michael Caine and a couple of hundred others. Which brings something to mind. Jimmy Stewart was born in 1908, George C. Scott in 1927, Clark Gable in 1901, Alec Guinnes in 1914, Eddie Albert in 1906, Bob Feller and Ted Williams in 1918, Michael Caine in 1933 and Tyrone Power in 1914. So the Hollywood A list DID go to war. As DID the sporting superstars.

So I guess my statement still stands. The Hollywood A list ISN’T going to defend Wake Island. Or to put it more clearly, the current Hollywood A list isn’t going to defend anything but their perqs.

This of course leads us to a whole ‘nother thing. The cultural elites of the old days went off and did their bit. The current crop didn’t and almost certainly won’t.

As we wrote in today’s post, in World War II soldiers had massive problems with STDs. Many of those soldiers were married or engaged. Or sleeping with unmarried women. or hookers.

Oh, and Ike cheated on his wife. Should we have fired him?

First off, loving this thread.

@ RA Mathis – “my remark about the code was more of an allusion to the idea of living by a consistent ‘code’ of conduct and not the changing whims of social mores.” so interesting thing to write, especially two days after the military radically changed to lift the ban on women in combat.

Michael C:

Where did I distinguish between morality and trust? My point was that adultery is by its nature immoral because it involves going back on one’s word and lying. Personally I am not inclined to trust a guy who goes back on their word and lies a lot. I figure if I feel that way, a lot of other people feel that way. So the military may want to discourage behavior the engenders mistrust.

Normal rules don’t apply to the military. In normal non-military life if you feel like quitting one day, you do. Nobody is going to come after you and at times stand you up against a wall and shoot you. Normal rules don’t apply.

Eric C:

Are you deliberately missing the point just to vex me? There is no glory in vexing somebody like me, it is too easy to do.

Please go back and read the last paragraph of my 18:49 comment.

@ Carl – I’m not trying to vex you. I’m loving this discussion. I just don’t think someone’s sexual activities, bedroom activities should enter into the military equation, as a law, or a moral code, or as a moral statement. (Short of sexual harassment, which is legitimate.)

First, sexual impropriety has been a part of the military for years.

Two, I think of the Hitler, Roosevelt, Churchill test. Which leader would you pick, with no other information, to lead a country? A man who cheated on his wife, a man who drank a quart of whiskey every day, or a vegetarian who doesn’t smoke and rarely drinks? The first is Roosevelt (Ike also cheated on his wife), the second is Churchill, the third is Hitler.

America trusted Roosevelt and Eisenhower, despite the fact both had affairs.

Finally, check out today’s post. It’s finally up, and complicates the issue of the moral military.

Eric C:

This has nothing to do with sexual activities in or out of the bedroom. It has to do with character, primarily the character of leaders and the facets of character it deals with are honesty and trustworthiness. Do you lie and do you do what you say you are going to do. By definition adulterers lie and don’t do what they vowed to do. So it seems to me only natural that an organization that neccasarily (sic) operates with special rules and is especially dependent on its members telling the truth and doing what they say they will do, it seems to me only natural that this organization will, must, have a rule discouraging behavior that must include lying and untrustworthiness.

The many members of the organization will not be able to live up to the rule. They are human. A wise organization plays the Irish cop, understands that and enforces the rule accordingly. But that does not diminish the importance of honesty and trustworthiness. The rule must remain because to rescind it is to exhibit a cavalier attitude about the character of its members, especially the leaders, the officers. Leaders, officers, should be held to a higher standard and this rule is part of that higher standard.

Just because an ideal is not universally held or practiced does not change the worth of the ideal. You don’t say, ‘Well everybody isn’t doing that. It must not be good so we will abandon it.’ Honesty and word keeping are just as important whether none, some or all practice them.

You could have the most corrupt PD imaginable and that PD will still espouse and probably genuinely believe the importance of their cops being honest. They may not practice what they preach, but they know the importance of it. And while they still see, at least in abstract, the importance of that ideal there is still a chance that they will come back to maintaining the right. If for whatever reason, that PD were to say, ‘We know not many of our cops are honest and its hard to get them to be that way so we aren’t going to bother about that anymore’ then all bets are off, you don’t have a PD anymore and you won’t ever have one.

That was an exaggeration for effect but it is the same thing for the military. Getting rid of the rule is a big step on the road to outright saying, honesty and word keeping aren’t really all that important to us because after all, civvie street doesn’t have to. You say that and it will spread and then, well then if a few decades you won’t be able to win wars.

(Of course, it is a moot point with our military. The multi-stars already are characterless. And our society doesn’t take war seriously. The whole women in combat thing is proof of that. So getting rid of this rule won’t change the outcome of the next big war one way or the other. We’ll get beat.)