Salem Reveille

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

‘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.

Those outside the armed services should not think this controversy will never touch them. If it becomes accepted for military investigators to pry into people’s private sexuality looking for something to punish, how soon will it be before the police, the FBI, the IRS, employment bureaus and corporate personnel offices begin asking who you’ve had sex with and how many names you will name to save yourself. That may not seem probable today, but how probable did the Flinn story seem a year ago? Surely, at least half the U.S. population has had sexual experiences outside marriage. Any shift by law-enforcement or employment agencies toward treating love affairs as matters for the public record could bring misery into the lives of millions who will not get the opportunity to state their defense on “The Today Show,” as Flinn did.

Among the worst aspects of the Salem witch trials was hypocrisy at the top, and that recurs in abundance today. President Bill Clinton has not spoken out, though the situation cries out for him to say, “The government has no business in your bedroom.” Clinton fears drawing attention to the Paula Corbin Jones lawsuit. But if private, voluntary love affairs are punishable infractions, the president is almost surely guilty, and it is pretension worthy of Cotton Mather for the White House to exempt itself while lesser persons have their lives thrown over.


Other examples of top-level hypocrisy are rampant. Until recently, W. Anthony Lake was national-security advisor, near the top of the U.S. defense hierarchy. While working in the White House, Lake left his wife and began a romance with one of his direct subordinates, an act far more brazen than anything Ralston or Flinn are accused of. Yet, while lesser people in the security chain were prosecuted for lesser indiscretions, no action was taken against Lake.

Air Force Secretary Sheila E. Widnall has shown herself an eager witch hunter, ordering that Flinn’s and other prosecutions for consensual affairs go forward. Widnall seems to feel her career will be served by proving she can be as inept, insensitive and soulless as any man. But if private romance is relevant to U.S. defense, why doesn’t Widnall disclose the details of her own sexual life? For example, is Widnall willing to announce how many times she has performed fellatio? According to the Washington Post, a female Air Force officer was asked just that by Pentagon inquisitors, shortly before being discharged recently for a consensual love affair.

There is a class component to Washington’s acquiescence to this scandal. White House personnel, Pentagon civilian officials, senators, representatives and media pundits are white collar, while the collar shade for most of those in the armed services is blue. Members of the Washington upper class, who might move to stop the witch hunt, seem smugly confident the puritanical impulses now amok in the services will never touch them: They will continue to do as they please sexually, while others of lower station or less education are punished.

Some have supposed that runaway military sexual persecution represents the internal throes of a macho institution attempting to adjust to accommodate homosexuality and female roles. There is some of that, but what this mini-inquisition suggests more is the preschool frenzy of a decade ago. In the McMartin Preschool case in Southern California, the Fells Acres Day School case in Massachusetts and others, emerging awareness of childhood sexual abuse combined with the political ambitions of prosecutors and media delight in a new source of sordidness to create an outpouring of demand that someone be strung up. During the McMartin trial and other cases, prosecutors and interest groups fairly danced with delight: Somebody was being made to suffer for general pent-up bad feelings about the world. That, in McMartin and other cases, they got the wrong somebody didn’t matter to the majority of those who, like most citizens of Salem, endured no personal harm but did get to watch others in entertaining anguish.

Surely, the same dynamic is at work here. There is cause for pent-up anger regarding the unjust nature of sexual relations and abuse of women in the workplace. But valid anger over the reality of sexual mistreatment hardly justifies the persecution of anyone, including any woman, who commits any act with the word “sex” in it. Just as the preschool prosecutions were eventually discredited, so, too, will the military sexual witch hunt ultimately be viewed as a source of dishonor for the Pentagon and of shame for all those, like Clinton, who were afraid to speak out.

But as in the preschool hysteria, lives ruined in the name of public spectacle will stay ruined. There is still time to stop the spread of harm. Remember: “The measure you give will be the measure you get.”