Adultery Poses Policy Challenges For Military

WASHINGTON -- Is an adulterer forever disqualified from serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

General Joseph Ralston's withdrawal as a candidate for the job seemed to pose that question Monday. The Pentagon's civilian leadership will now have to try to answer it.

In the current climate of opinion, shaped by the abortive court-martial of Air Force 1st Lieutenant Kelly Flinn and the sex scandal at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, Ralston evidently would not have been able to win Senate confirmation as the nation's top military commander. Ralston and his bosses had no persuasive answer to the accusation that indulging his adultery while punishing others for similar offenses constituted a double standard.

The challenge facing the military now is to develop a policy that would accept some past indiscretions and set rules for the future that judge everyone consistently regardless of rank or gender.

Defense Secretary William Cohen already has set up a commission to give local commanders clearer, practical guidelines on how to apply the military's now highly subjective rules against adultery.

But Cohen has yet to spell out a way to deal gracefully with cases like Ralston's that involve past infidelities. So far the Pentagon has insisted it will not issue any kind of blanket amnesty, but without one the issue is bound to crop up again.

In the view of many experts, the military's adultery rules now operate not just on a double standard but on multiple standards. Punishment is determined by factors including the moral philosophy of individual commanders, the sex of the offenders and the interpretation of broadly worded statutes.

The military argues that such subjectivity is desirable, so commanders can judge each case by its individual facts. But that same flexibility also can be the source of unfairness. What one commander believes brings discredit to the service, another may ignore altogether.

"They haven't codified it because the military is conflicted about it,'' said G. William Dando, executive director of the Military Chaplains Association, a professional organization of 1,650 former and current military chaplains.

"We're not a sexually healthy society in many ways. It's the kind of thing the military has to come to grips with,'' Dando said.

Even accepting the legal argument that Ralston's liaison did not rise to the level of a military crime, in part because he wasn't a commander at the time and therefore the affair didn't disrupt military order, a number of military members said a prospective Joint Chiefs chairman should not only be innocent but morally above reproach as well.

"The question should not be whether he complied with the [law],'' said one senior Pentagon attorney, "but whether he can provide moral leadership. How can we support someone who, while turning on the values of honor, courage and commitment at work, may have turned them off at home. These values have to be internalized.''