Military Misbehavin’

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Army photo / Sgt. Amanda Hils

Army Brigadier General Jeff Sinclair, then the deputy commanding general of support for the 82nd Airborne Division, speaking with Afghan reporters last year.

The Army charged a general who has served five combat tours with a lengthy roster of sexual-assault and other charges last week. Why do such high-flying senior officers sometimes crash and burn like this?

Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair remains innocent until proven guilty on charges including forcible sodomy, wrongful sexual conduct, inappropriate relationships and a trifecta of trouble involving misuse of a government credit card and possessing booze and porn while deployed (“It sounds like he pissed somebody off,” a retired Army colonel notes of the long list of alleged crimes, for which he faces court martial).

But interviews with more than a dozen military officers, both retired and active duty, offer insights into such cases.

“They’re GI Joes of the generals,” says one retired Army general. “They’ve got this whole combat persona that they project and use, and the Army is not set up to look past that. They can get away with a lot.”

(MORE: Sexual Assault: The Danger of Isolation)

The consensus is that lower-ranking troops – think drill sergeants at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds or trainers at the Air Force’s Lackland Air Force Base – live in an insular world where their word is command. Many such non-commissioned officers stay in such assignments for years, while their superiors regularly cycle in and out, eager to punch their ticket and move on.

In that kind of a situation, officers often aren’t really in command. Co-ed training can lead to problems, and the wrong assortment of NCOs can become a predatory pack. The circle-the-wagon mentality shared by those on the inside can make such rings tough to crack.

It’s different, military officers speaking privately say, as you move up the ranks. First of all, such misbehavior becomes increasingly risky the higher in rank the officer – there is more to be lost. Scrutiny becomes greater with each promotion. Finally, senior officers believe there are two kinds of officers: those who would never commit such acts, and those – who for whatever reason – will, and do. Some are simply gob-smacked by such charges against a senior officer. “I cannot figure out how this sort of thing happens,” one retired four-star general says flatly.

Others think they know. “Some of these guys have psychopathic traits – they can be exploitive and manipulative,” another retired general says. So how do they get promoted? “Because he knows what his bosses want and need – it’s not like psychopaths are not in a number of very senior posts, including politicians and presidents.”

The Pentagon has been cracking down on sexual assault in the ranks for decades. “Any sexual assault has no place in the military,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview with NBC Thursday. “I have men and women in the military who put their lives on the line…to protect this country,” he said. “Surely we owe it to them to be able to protect them.”

(MORE: Is Sexual Violence Endemic to the U.S. Military?)

The next day, 20 men and women filed a lawsuit against Panetta and other top Pentagon officials, claiming they were raped or assaulted while serving in the U.S. military, and suffered retaliation when they reported the incidents.

The military, of course, is supposed to be a paragon of virtue. Its soldiers are more physically fit than the average American, so perhaps its only natural to assume they’re more morally fit as well. But those on the inside doubt that’s true.

Sexual violence, military officers say, is a bright shining line that an officer crosses at his own risk. “It’s clear that as a general if you cross a certain line you’re going to get a bad spank if you’re caught,” the second retired general says. “It’s all about knowing what the line is, and what is acceptable and what’s not.”

Consensual sex – even when it’s adultery – is more widely tolerated. “If you keep it quiet,” a retired colonel says, “it tends to be ignored.”

A retired general concurs. “There is a club mentality in the Army,” he says. “Sexual misconduct in some units is condoned – like special forces – all of that stuff is condoned and understood. But the rules change when you become a general and all of a sudden you’re under a microscope.”

“It’s not so much `different spanks for different ranks,’” says the retired colonel. “It’s not that consistent. It depends on who your commander is, and your relationship with him.” That, of course, drives some officers crazy. There are senior officers who seemed to be protected by even more senior officers.

The military deals with sexual assaults and other such crimes the way many troops deal with post-traumatic stress disorder – by denying its existence until it explodes, some officers say.

(MORE: General Misconduct)

“It’s all part of the military mentality – it’s all about how you appear,” says a former Army general. “From the time you come in, your uniform has got to be crisp and clean, and you’ve got to stand up straight and salute. But what’s underneath it doesn’t get as much attention.”

It’s fitting that the military has long had trouble with sexual issues; as Woody Allen might say, sex and death are flip sides of the same coin. Death is the ultimate in war, and sex is all about power, either exerted or shared.

“This is a testosterone-based institution,” the retired general says. “There’s a lot of overlap.” The key challenge for a military force is to channel the testosterone needed to prevail in combat, but not to let it fuel sexual abuse.

The Navy has been looking at the so-called “Bathsheba syndrome” as part of its recurring problems with commanding officers who end up getting fired. It involves the Biblical tale of King David, who sent one of his soldiers to certain death so the king could have his wife, Bathsheba.

A 2010 Navy IG report examining the ouster of 80 commanders for misconduct – half involving sex-related charges – concluded the Bathsheba syndrome played a role. “COs either did not possess the insight into their motives and weaknesses to prevent them from knowingly engaging in unacceptable behavior or they felt that they had the power to conceal their misdeeds,” the IG concluded.

(MORE: Sexual Assault and the Military: Old Remedies Don’t Work)

“The lesson in the Bathsheba syndrome is that everyone is susceptible to the temptations that come with power and control,” wrote Mike Lambert, a retired Navy captain who runs the I Like the Cut of His Jib naval blog. “It is not just the unprincipled that take advantage of being on top…It is also critical for leaders to remember that privilege and status were given to do the job and not as a reward.”

Generals acknowledge the problem. “It’s not uncommon for powerful, successful individuals to succumb to the syndrome, and start to feel that they are beyond reproach,” one says. “Their abuse continues to mount.”

“I’ve only got 13,700 females out of 200,000 total [Marines],” General James Amos, the Marine commandant, said last month. “But I’ve looked every single male Marine in the eye that I could…and I said, `You need to understand that my females are just as important to me as my males are.’ And I think they believe me.” But, Amos added, “this is not going to be won this year; not going to be won next year.”

Air Force General Mark Welsh, now the service’s chief of staff, detailed just how much anti-sexual harassment training his forces undergo at his confirmation hearing in July. “We’ve institutionalized training at every level from accession training for officer enlisted to commander training at the wing commander level in the Air Force. We do annual refresher training,” he said. “We have completed bystander intervention training for the entire uniformed Air Force over the last six months or so.” Such training bothers most troops who would never sexually assault anyone. They find it a waste of time because too often it doesn’t seem to reach the miscreants who commit such acts, they say.