Sunday, November 18, 2012

Soldiers as personal servants, 28-vehicle motorcades to parties, and other glimpses into the military life

We go from day to day having a certain sense of what our world is like: that all people are created equal, that strong class distinctions don't apply anymore. And then sometimes the mirror cracks and another view appears.

There are the obvious stories of the super-wealthy, of course. The story that sums it up for me is something I once read about Bill Gates: when a member of the Gates family enters a room in their massive house, the household staff must lower their eyes to the floor or turn to the wall. Gates presents himself as a down-to-earth, humanitarian, nice guy sort, but his wealth has apparently corrupted him to the point that he puts himself in a higher caste.

Then there's the diplomatic world. Leaders of democratic governments use most diplomatic posts as perks for people who have helped them gain power. With the increase in the number of sovereign states over the last decades, the opportunity for patronage posts has skyrocketed. The lavish lifestyle enjoyed by many top diplomats should be an enormous scandal, but for some reason they get away with it.

To a lesser extent, aid workers fall into the same category. When I was working in East Africa I saw a lot of that. One couple from England told me that back home, they had never even been able to afford a washing machine, but in Africa they had a staff of eight attending to their every need.

The latest crack in the mirror came about courtesy of the David Petraeus sex scandal. A Washington Post article (Petraeus scandal puts four-star general lifestyle under scrutiny) describes some of the perks that top military brass get at their homes. Some highlights:
  • Enlisted men serve as staff at their homes to do yard work, run errands, and do other menial tasks.
  • The military provides the generals with a valet and personal chef.
  • For private parties in their homes, the military will provide an orchestra or choir.
  • For personal trips, they can summon motorcades. (In one trip across town to visit Jill Kelley, Patraeous had a 28-motorcycle escort.)
  • For travel, they have jumbo jets with beds.
  • ...And then there are the usual scandals of individual excess caused by budget cutbacks that removed expense oversight.
Is there a connection between this royal treatment and the scandal now enveloping Petraeus and other top military brass? Absolutely. I'm not saying that they shouldn't be well-compensated and have perks, and I can guess that some of the perks are required in a day when you wives have jobs too. But a line is clearly crossed here. Petraeus and General Allen (he of the 30,000 pages of flirtatious email to a Tampa socialite) seem to have morphed into jet-setting celebrities - when in reality they were military commanders in a time of war.