COLUMBIA, S.C. — Before she recently left the Air Force after 10 years as a cargo pilot, Janine Davidson was occasionally offended by other officers who cheated on their spouses or engaged in debauchery on remote assignments. Nonetheless, Ms. Davidson believes the military is often "too concerned about people's private lives."
"With all the laws on the books, just the accusation of adultery can send somebody's career into oblivion," Davidson says.
But that may be slowly changing. This week, the Pentagon issued new guidelines that no longer make adultery a crime. Commanders will be given more leeway in how they deal with the issue.
At the same time, however, Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered a more stringent policy on fraternization - dating between officers and enlisted personnel. It will be banned throughout the armed forces.
The twin moves mark a subtle but significant shift in military social policy - one that holds important symbolic and practical implications for the day-to-day working of the military. They come amid lingering bitterness over the case of former Air Force pilot Kelly Flinn - and the ongoing embarrassment over an Army general who recently was allowed to retire as investigators probed allegations against him.
The scandals, as well as recent sexual harassment cases, at times have overshadowed other important issues and hampered the working of the armed forces, military analysts say.
Outside observers, and many in the ranks, believe there's a good reason: The military's low tolerance for extra-marital sex is a value not to be compromised.
"I think many people in the military will feel that anything that downgrades loyalty and your obligations is threatening to the concept of what makes the military tick," says Larry Newman, a consultant who specializes in crisis management for companies across the United States.
"A lot of the military reaction to this has to do with the concept of loyalty - loyalty to your country, your branch of service, to your unit. It is the core of what gets people to put themselves in harm's way," Mr. Newman says.
Within the past year, the Pentagon has operated under a cloud brought about by the highly publicized case of Ms. Flinn, a bomber pilot the Air Force accused of lying, disobeying an order, and adultery. The publicity over the Flinn case derailed the candidacy of Gen. Joseph Ralston, an Air Force officer who was in line to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Ralston had acknowledged a relationship with another woman years earlier, while separated from his wife.
Outside the military, infidelity can be embarrassing, but not always career-threatening. For those in uniform it's a different story. Adultery is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and can instantly end a career.
Some believe the Pentagon's recent moves signal a further merging of civilian and military cultures.
From increasingly hiring civilian contractors, to encroachment of corporate advertisers, to the merging of military and civilian health-care systems, many military installations are not the island cultures they once were.
IN fact, some in the Pentagon are now proposing that the armed forces adopt as a recruiting tool a 401(k) type investment plan, a mainstay of private employers.
Connie Best, a Naval Reserve officer here and an authority on sexual abuse and rape, agrees with the Air Force's Davidson that the services sometimes focus too heavily on the private lives of service members. Ms. Best says that the Pentagon needs to have rules that "maintain good order and discipline," but adds that punishments for adultery until now have been too severe and are "viewed too often in black and white." Davidson can recall cases where friends were accused of behavior that would have seemed laughable were the consequences not so serious. In one case, a male colleague dated a woman who lied about her marital status and ended up "ruining his career."
Under the new guidelines, commanders will have more latitude in handling violations and have been instructed to pursue courts-martial only when adultery hurts "the good order and discipline in the armed forces."
Henry Hamilton, a private attorney in Columbia, S.C., and former Army lawyer, argues that common sense should prevail and indiscretions should be put in the context of a servicemember's record. But Mr. Hamilton believes that the military's record on prosecuting adultery cases is often mis-represented. Hamilton says he cannot recall a single episode in which Army officers were prosecuted on adultery charges alone.
"I never tried an adultery case by itself. There was always some other sex offense," says Hamilton, a former military prosecutor.
One of the proposals now being considered would discourage prosecution of romantic affairs that happened years before - a la Ralston - or did not disrupt good order and discipline.
Hamilton and others suggest that while discretion is necessary in determining punishment, that too is a slippery slope.
"In essence, adultery has devastating effects on the families of the person with whom the adultery was committed."
"It leads to consequences that are spontaneous, irrational, and often violent," Hamilton says.
Davidson witnessed that on a flight from Germany to the United States last year. She evacuated an Army soldier who had been doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire by the husband of a woman he'd had an affair with. She was disturbed by the whole episode, but nevertheless agrees with Best that all adultery circumstances are not equal.
"We're supposed to be held to a higher standard than the public," Davidson says, adding, "I don't know how realistic that is with an all-volunteer force."