Wednesday, November 14, 2012

This is a Hollywood B-reel script, right?

While I was away on a trip with the USNA Ethics Team, in sunny FLA, the world took a turn toward the bizarre and depressing.   Saturday, after an exhausting but rewarding day (the team won the Ethics Bowl Regional competition we were attending), I was back in the hotel room, unwinding, sat down to eat relax, take in the late college football games on the Hi-Def, and decided to check the news channels first. Flipped over to Fox, and thought I heard that Petraeus had resigned as CIA chief. 

What? Naww. Couldn’t be. Why?  Something to do with Benghazi?

The crawl below said something to the effect that threatening emails had been sent by Petraeus to his biographer. Huh?  So, I hang in there; wait for the anchors to get around to talking about the story again. Nope. 10 minutes pass. HE didn’t send the emails. His biographer, a woman, sent them to some other woman who she believed was after Petraeus.  And he had been carrying on an affair with this biographer. Bam. Cheating on his wife. David Freakin’ Petraeus.
Floored, I waited for the cycle to go through yet again. Surely this wasn’t happening.  That crawl came back around a few times, still incorrectly attributing the threats to Petraeus. (Fox has problems with their crawl. Seen that before on a few occasions. Never trust television news, not Fox, not ABC, not CBS, none of them.)  Story comes back around via the talking head. Yep. Affair and threats from one woman to the other.


Tell me it ain’t so Joe.

But, sadly it is. Things only got worse, and more bizarre. Tuesday we found out that John Allen has been setting speed-writing records that Evelyn Wood would envy, records in sheer output of email correspondence with the same Tampa woman that had been threatened by the Petraeus biographer.   From the Washington Compost we had this:
According to a senior U.S. defense official, the FBI has uncovered between 20,000 and 30,000 pages of documents — most of them e-mails — that contain “potentially inappropriate” communication between Allen and Jill Kelley, the 37-year-old Tampa woman whose report of harassment by a person who turned out to be Petraeus’s mistress ultimately led to Petraeus’s downfall.

These emails may have been highly erotic in nature, or maybe not. Depends on which news source you are looking at. As of this writing, I don’t know. Still. Quite a lot of email.
Regardless, this leads to a very old but stubbornly open question. This sort of thing has happened in the past and will happen again, but that just puts a point on the question:

Why do men in power do stupid things like this?
And, not to let the ladies off:

Why do women do stupid things like this?

And to put some more focus on it, keep in mind we are talking military men and women here (Petraeus and Broadwell were West Pointers.  Allen is a Marine, a USNA grad. As Mids are wont to remind anyone that asks them about military ethics, folks that come from these environments are ‘beat over the head’ with ethics education, leadership education, yearly, monthly, and daily.  They are informed that not only are they to be held to higher standards, but lengthy justification for this is given. Extended penetrating ethical discussions are the norm.  So, anyway):

Why do military men and women do stupid things like this?

Why do military men and women, who know they are exemplars, and play that role, do stupid things like this?
And finally, considering Petraeus was head of CIA:

Why do people in sensitive positions do things that they know full well are egregiously dangerous for national security, and for morale of the institutions they head, even as they hold underlings to the same standards they violate?
Answers or contributory factors come in these categories

1. A motivation from vanity and a desire to record and shape ones legacy
Take-away lesson: Do not form cozy relations with journalists until you have retired from public life. In fact, it is better not to actively pursue this end at all. Deeds will be recorded regardless, and the truth will out. Just do your damn job. If you feel it necessary to generate a literary legacy, write it yourself.  A healthy arms-length relationship with media is best. They want you to think they are there to record your brilliance for posterity, and indeed they may also think that they are doing so, but what happens in effect, is that you become insulated, not only from a realistic self-assessment, but from seeing elements of that relationship that are time wasters, and as such, in direct conflict with your duty, your job. Take your lessons vis-√†-vis the media not from McCrystal nor from Petraeus, but from Sherman and Grant.

2. Sex. 
Take away: Seriously, folks if you are not aware that the human sex drive can cause Big Bohemian Cluster Farks, and as such, should be closely monitored and treated as suspect, then you are not human.  But, you are human. By modus tollens, you do know the human sex drive is capable of causing Big Bohemian Cluster Farks.  Therefore, there is no excuse here. As Plato might say “quit letting the passions run the show, make sure the charioteer, not the horses, is driving the damn car. Come on. If you are in power, do not put yourself in overly familiar situations with women (if you are a man) or men (if woman).   Duh.

3. Insulation from negative consequences, by way of special powers or position.

Back to Plato: His “Ring of Gyges” story forces us to consider the effects of insulation from normal external mechanisms of behavioral control. In that story a ring that grants the power of invisibility is found by a shepherd, who promptly uses it to seduce a queen, kill the King, and take over.  
Similar themes have been explored in fiction for centuries. Think H.G. Welles “Invisible Man” or Harold Ramis’s “Groundhog Day,” Or more recently, Ricky Gervais’s “The Invention of Lying.” All are variations on the theme.  All record the debilitation of moral sensibilities that can result from this insulation, the degradation of character.

Take-away: As one rises in a command hierarchy something similar happens.  The higher in rank you are, the less people there are above to monitor and serve as exemplars. At some point you become the monitor and model.  You become treated as such by those around.  People underneath are far less likely to offer criticism, and indeed will be more likely to praise you, or at least remain quiet if they are uncomfortable with anything you do.  This cuts the feedback loop from which lower ranked people benefit.  If ones character has formed properly for this occasion, one will have internalized that feedback in the form of a sort of Super-Ego or Platonic charioteer, and will not need the external aid. If not, one will run risk of letting the horses guide the car. Granted we have human frailties, and most, if not all of us are likely to have at least a foot in that latter camp, we need to refer to 1, 2 above, and 4 below.

4. Loneliness
The cliché has it that it is lonely at the top. To an extent that is correct. Some people in power crave companionship on a basis of equality, and feel they are missing that in a world filled with either professional relationships, underlings, or the sycophantic. Combine this with the powerful draw of sexual attraction, and you have a mix that has been taken advantage of in the espionage game for centuries.

Take-away: Once again, it pays to be meta-cognitively aware of this, and indeed all these factors, before one slips into the traps they lay. This is the point of Plato’s metaphor of the chariot. One needs that cold rational assessment of the traps and ones personal foibles. A simple lesson, that never quite seems to be fully learned.

Additionally, one must look outside, at the social or external repercussions and ramifications of ones acts. One is never truly insulated, nor isolated. One must consider the wrecking potential this sort of indulgence has on the true long term companions and loves, the spouses. One must consider ones kids. One must consider all the families one wrecks. One must consider those that look to him/her as mentor and role model.

This is all old hat, as are scandals such as this.