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Salem Reveille

In this new witch hunt, the military is pressing a puritanical morality that has long infected U.S. history. How public should personal matter be?

June 15, 1997|Gregg Easterbrook | Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly. His new book, "Beside Still Waters" will be published next year

BRUSSELS — 'In the years of the witch-hunting mania, people were encouraged to inform against one another," one historical text tells of Salem in 1692. The military's sexual paroxysm has now reached this stage. Maj. Gen. John F. Longhouser, commander of the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, was just compelled to retire at reduced rank because of the disclosure that he had an affair with a civilian woman while separated from his wife. No one claims Longhouser mistreated or harassed any woman: The indictment is simply that he had an affair. And how did this private matter become known? The Army has set up a nationwide hotline for sexual allegations. Someone who doesn't like Longhouser called to lodge an anonymous accusation against him. In the manner of witch hunts, that an accusation was made was all that mattered.

"Do not judge, so that you may not be judged," Jesus warned, "for with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get." This teaching should be high in people's minds, as the sanctimonious desire to judge others for private sexual conduct now veers completely out of control. Samuel Parris, chief accuser at Salem, would feel right at home in 1997.

Within the Pentagon, sexual controversies are genuine issues. Because of the emphasis the military must place on obedience, female service members are doubly vulnerable to sexual predation, and there is no doubt many have been harassed or victimized. Bans on fraternization are valid for organizations in which officers may order subordinates into danger. Drill sergeants who push themselves on effectively powerless female trainees commit a grave offense. Bomber pilots who lie to superiors break a code of honor that is enforced for good reason.

But the witch-hunt atmosphere has now expanded far beyond such valid concerns. Last week, Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston withdrew from consideration as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff solely because he once had an affair with a civilian while estranged from his wife. This private matter has no relationship whatsoever to the performance of Ralston's official duties. Air Force bomber pilot Kelly Flinn was discharged less than honorably for lying about an affair, but the reason she lied was to evade intrusion into a private matter. At Aberdeen, some female trainees assert, Army prosecutors threatened women that unless they accused sergeants of rape, they themselves would be prosecuted for sexual encounters. Creating crimes by bullying people into denouncing others was a standard tactic of the Spanish Inquisition.

Dozens of military personnel around the country have been discharged, face imprisonment or are already imprisoned not for any form of forcible or criminal sex, but solely for consensual intercourse. Prison--for love affairs!

Sexual involvement is sometimes a bad idea, especially if marriage vows are broken. But these are private matters to be resolved between men and women, their clergy and counselors, not aired at courts martial or congressional press conferences. Over the last few weeks, top Pentagon officials, White House staff, senators and media pundits have spent countless hours debating the fine points of exactly under what circumstances Ralston and Flinn got laid. Certainly the Puritans, who lived to pass judgment on other people's weakness of the flesh, would approve this diversion of society's resources to tormenting the unwary. But is it 1692 or 1997?

Women's groups cheering on the controversy seem to reason that prosecutorial intrusion into sexual privacy is now justified because men occupy more top positions and, therefore, men will be hurt most if having an affair becomes cause for official persecution. But though Flinn may now have become a celebrity, fielding movie offers, she is the only person likely to benefit from Salem 1997. Other service women are having their lives ruined. So far, the worst price was paid by a woman, Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Tew, who in March placed a shotgun between her eyes and pulled the trigger after being court-martialed solely for a consensual love affair. Tew killed herself before the court-martial paperwork went through to preserve survivor's health benefits for her daughter, who has a brain tumor. Air Force prosecutors tried to get Tew's husband to denounce her, but he refused. Lecherous inquisitors forcing spouses to denounce each other was a running theme of witch trials.

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