Four Star Folly: A Military Perspective

(Notes: Crossposted at the UPC. The idea actually came from Goose. It must not be that bad since it’s been NewsNow’s top story for two days. So thanks to Goose for kickin’ me in the ass and getting me writing it)

By now, you are most likely aware of the four star general who has been relieved of his command. Gen. Kevin P. Byrnes, head of the Army’s Training and Doctrine command has been “fired”, the latest reports saying because of an affair that he had while still married to his separated wife.

Non military persons not really familiar with how the armed forces do things may seem this kind of… strange. It’s not really surprising, then, that there might be a conspiracy theory popping up here and there. Just this evening I got a phone call asking me, “don’t you think that’s kinda weird?”

Well, yeah, a little. But.

I’m not writing this to dispell any possible conspiracies. I don’t have any evidence for or against the possibility that his firing is for something more than an extra-marrital affair. But I did want to provide a little perspective from someone who is in the military. I may not be a military buff, and be able to spout off the names of all kinds of different military vehicles, or weapons, but I know something about the culture of the armed forces, a culture where something like this might actually take place without there being something underneath.

Some may say it starts with Tailhook. Others, Vietnam. I’m going to go and say that this starts back in the World War II and earlier era.

Back then the image of the “Drunken Sailor” really began to get legs. Everything from movies to real life had begun to cement the profile of the burly hard drinkin’, tough talkin’, bar brawlin’ Navy sailor. Around that time, it was not uncommon to see signs in Virginian front lawns chastising, “Niggers and Sailors keep off the grass.” While general opinion of the military at that time was decent, particularly because of public support of the second World War, and perhaps cultural differences of that time, the military had come accross what would grow to be a major PR problem.

Fast forward to the Vietnam war. I don’t need to tell you about the image of the military during and following the Vietnam War. Unlike today, many people at least behaved as though they were blaming the military of that age. Soldiers did not come home to fanfare, a fact that seems to be lost on politicians of today. On top of the unpopularity of the conflict, there were other problems. Shell shock which resulted in our soldiers coming home… not the way they left. Due to organizational and communication problems, soldiers had also engaged in drug abuse, some even bringing their habits back home.

After Vietnam, things didn’t get better.

From Vietnam to the 80’s, the military’s public image was fighting a war on two fronts. While the Vietnam conflict had left a bitter taste in many people’s mouths on the outside, quality of life issues plagued the military from within.

Around this time, “FTN” was getting etched into the gray paint of US Navy war ships throughout the fleet. (That stands for Fuck The Navy) The public image of soldiers was that of someone who couldn’t make it in the real world. Slow witted young men who could only survive under the highly regimented and disciplinarian eye of some hard edged Drill Sargeant.

Then Tailhook happened.

By now the military was full of Drunks, Brawlers, Dimwits, Slackers, etc., and now, courtesy the Air Force, the military had went from maybe a reputation of a little debauchery, to being outright sexually abusive.

Now, I joined the Navy in 1996. And this history of the negative image of the military was actually part of our training, and there is a reason for it. In order to survive, particularly as a voluntary institution, it was absolutely vital for the military to improve its public image.
One of the most indellible images in my mind from bootcamp is a video that was played over and over again. A master chief (the highest enlisted rank in the Navy) in a razor sharp uniform and a crisp high and tight haircut was addressing a group of pimple faced seaman recruits. In a paternal voice, he explained, “if I were to be arrested for drunk driving tonight, I would not be command master chief tomorrow.”

The military, as a whole, in the last half of the twentieth century has suffered from a negative image regarding the personal lives of its members. This was an image that could have been devastating. The way to battle that, of course, is to crack the hammer (I know, horrible mixed metaphor, but you get the point).

What’s more, the higher the rank, the worse the punishment.

And so, I wasn’t that shocked when I first heard the story. Not because of the four star part. That part is rare. A military officer that high in rank is more like a politician than a military member, and as a result, one would expect that person to be more careful in his personal life. But the harshness of the punishment is to be expected.

It’s about making an example. It’s about the military saying, “look, we’re taking care of our own.” That is why General Byrnes has been subjected to so harsh a treatment.

From my own experience. I’ve known two persons who have conducted extra marital affairs, were discovered, and were punished. The first was a second class petty officer (E-5). That person was reduced to third class (E-4), served a couple of months of restriction, and received half month’s pay for three months.

The second was a chief (E-7). Same loss of pay, same restriction, but he was knocked down to an (E-5). Here’s what’s more. Once you break that E-7 barrier, it’s not that easy to drop you in rank. It requires congressional support to do so, while an NCO under the E-7 rank can be dropped by that person’s commanding officer.

So, again, I’m not trying to sway your opinion one way or another, just trying to provide a little context.

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