Rest & recreation, class and General Petraeus

Published : Dec 14, 2012 00:00 IST

General David Petraeus,former Commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, with Paula Broadwell.-AP

General David Petraeus,former Commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, with Paula Broadwell.-AP

The Broadwell-Petraeus affair was simply an upper-class mirror image of the common GIs consumption of conveyor belt rest and recreation during Americas modern wars.

EUROPEANS look at the unfolding of the sexual peccadillo involving General David Petraeus with blase amusement over living American Puritanism harnessed to politics, having long been accustomed to the follies of President Francois Mitterrand and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, to name just some of the countless prominent European male political figures engaging in extracurricular activities. Such affairs create barely a ripple there. On the other hand, the spectacle of the pillorying of General Petraeus for what was a life-choice matter conflicts extraordinarily with the tolerance of a vast legal porn industry in Los Angeles County, estimated alone to gross $1 billion a year, revealing the American hypocrisy.

Joshua Goldstein (2001) pointed out in his treatise on war and gender that the United States military had long had a penchant for assuaging the psychological horrors of war with sexual imagery and practices (including very light penalties for sexual assault and rape in the U.S. military, see ONeill, 1998, Dahr Jamail, 2009, and Speier, 2012). By 2012, intra-military violence against women was being described in terms of an epidemic ( Huffington Post, 2012).

Sexist imagery (as objectification of women), whether on the nose of an aeroplane or women prancing on a stage, has a long tradition in the U.S. military. Would the airmen of the Luftwaffe of Germany have painted the noses of their Heinkel HE-111 or Junkers JU-88 bombers with sexually charged images of scantily clad ladies (so-called American nose art)? Or would the airmen of the Red Air Force flying their YAK, Stormovik, and even biplane aircraft in the Battle of Stalingrad (Balis, n.d.)?

John Berger (1972) notes in his extraordinary book Ways of Seeing: To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen by others and not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude.

Images of and shows by provocatively posed and semi-nude women are routinely extolled as serving to boost troop morale in faraway war zones. Both promoters of such spectacles, such as the United Service Organisation (USO) and the Armed Forces Entertainment (AFE), and attending soldiers routinely express this view.

The Second World War elevated the pin-up to a major industry. The models used by artists were attired in sun suits, skimpy dresses, bathing suits or provocative items such as lingerie. By 1942, the pin-up had become an icon for American GIs (Jacobs, n.d.). Soldiers carried with them photos not only of loved ones but also of their favourite pin-ups. Whether in punchboard games or playing cards, or on match covers, or on stationery and envelopes (by Bell Engraving Co.), or on cigarette packs in U.S. field rations (the Raleigh girl 1), pin-ups were everywhere and allegedly helped boost the morale of American troops.

In the words of Life magazine, by 1954, the pin-up, an 8x10 glossy photograph of the female figure, is by now a standard military item. 2 In February 1954, Marilyn Monroe performed for 100,000 GIs in Korea:

Miss Monroe embarrassed escorting officers by discerning her famous nude calendar in a mess hall. But she said, I am very happy to have my picture hanging in a place of honour. In zero weather, Marilyn Monroe shoe-horned herself into a snug dress and sang Anything Goes for GIs, who whistled, howled and took their personal pin-up pictures. 3

She appeared in slinky long dresses, after having been featured nude in Playboys first-ever issue in June 1953.

In Christmas 1967, as part of the Bob Hope USO show, Raquel Welch was dancing in front of (and with) U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, clothed in her blue and white crocheted micro-mini dress and giving out postcards. A major American monthly would comment, Perfection in an imperfect world. 4

The sex act serves to temporarily displace the social/emotional anxieties of war. For the common lower-class soldier, frequenting spots such as the Monaco Bar in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), where sex was provided in assembly-line manner, sufficed. It is the same today in the scores of brothels around the massive Camp Bondesteel U.S. military base in Kosovo (Mendelson, 2005).

For the lower classes of the American fighting corps, sexual release and fantasy is accepted and barely mentioned (Fischer, 1997). The sordid sex dens of a Saigon, Bangkok or a Manila during Americas Indochina wars had a functional raison detre and barely raised an eyebrow. U.S. military bases worldwide and local prostitution are symbiotic (as were comfort women and the Japanese army) (Mies, 1998, and Sturdevant, 2001). When such options do not exist, as in Americas Afghan and Iraq wars, well then, ferry in morale-boosting ladies, by courtesy of the U.S Armed Forces Entertainment: in past imperial wars years the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Raquel Welch, and today the morale-boosting cheerleaders, ex-Miss Americas, or the voluptuous ladies of the World Wrestling Federation on tour to assuage pain and fire up escapism. For Thanksgiving 2001, U.S. soldiers were treated to a holiday cheer morale boost when a troupe of six cheerleaders from the Miami Dolphins football team performed for U.S. troops and pilots in the hanger bay of USS Theodore Roosevelt in the northern Arabian Sea (Herold, 2002).


Sexism and extreme cultural insensitivity (presented as humour) were displayed by the Washington Raiders football cheerleaders in December 2002. The cheerleaders appeared on stage before the assembled U.S. soldiers at Camp Arifjan (in Kuwait) clothed in black burqas. To the wild cheers of the boys, they then stripped down to their traditional white hot pants and frilly tops.

In the U.S., the triad of sexism, professional sports and the military is very powerful (Herold, n.d.). The presence of cheerleaders from professional sports teamsfootball and basketballconnects important imagery. As Goldstein (2001:356) argues, Football, like war, allows males to enter an adversarial mentality that seeks to dominate, humiliate, and vanquish the foe and restore wholeness.

It also supports the idea of being on the winning team.

Such images are primus inter pares instances of the objectification of women. The male gaze dictates the use of these womens bodies for sexualised objectification. The imagery of glamorous women is consumed by the sexually pent-up male troops.

While the same eroticised general imagery is pervasive over the past half century, a couple of interesting shifts occur. First, the degree of exposure of the female body in public performances for U.S. troops increases markedly. Secondly, whereas the cases of Marilyn and Raquel involved well-known (at the time) personalities, today the squads of cheerleaders are basically unknown, anonymous young women. The cheerleaders of professional sports teams also underscore the idea of being on the winning team in war. I argue that this illustrates our shift towards a postmodern culture in which the play of detached images and surfaces becomes dominant. Today, the emphasis is unabashedly erotic and sexual with little artistic depth.

For the higher-class military officers, a more dignified, complex, illicit extramarital liaison is sought. But as military and political public figures in the U.S. (for instance, ex-Governor of New York Eliot Spitzer, or Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former chief of the International Monetary Fund) rise in the hierarchy of class or power, sexual peccadilloes create potential vulnerability (unlike in Europe). It is unlikely that a proclivity to sexual affairs is greater in the officer corps than in other elite circles. But the crucial aspect is the sex act itself, which can cause embarrassment and sanction. It will be used by some to demolish reputations, not because of the act itself but rather for other hidden agendas.

General Petraeus had crossed the proverbial line in the sand by inviting vulnerability through getting intellectuo-erotic satisfaction. But, the scalpel of American Puritanism or the politics of sexuality (Rubin, 1992) doomed the hapless general. Now, naturally it takes two to tango (as Pearl Bailey put it in her 1952 hit song, The talented, educated, worldly and younger Paula Broadwell had her own motives for the extramarital escapade (basking in power is intoxicating for most) and no doubt participated conjointly in constructing the affair (just like wives play their part in the battered-wife syndrome).

General Petraeus lifestyle choice was hardly worthy of the massive media coverage it received in the U.S. (Croydon, 2012). But as so often, the arrogance of power and sense of entitlementin this case the reckless stream of Paula Broadwells e-mails to Jill Kelleywere fatal (Lardner, 2012).

The Broadwell-Petraeus affair was simply an upper-class mirror image of the common GIs consumption of conveyor belt rest and recreation during Americas modern wars.

Marc W. Herold is a professor in the Departments of Economics and Womens Studies, University of New Hampshire, United States.


1 The Pride of the Regiment, 1941-1972 at

2 The Pin-Up Takes Shape, Life 36 (March 1, 1954): 28-29.

3 ibid

4 Perfection in an Imperfect World, Esquire 70 (August 1968): 48-51.


Goldstein, Joshua S. "War and Gender. How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa" (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

O'Neill, William L. "Sex Scandals in the Gender-Integrated Military", Gender Issues 16, 1-2 (1998): 64-85

Jamail, Dahr. "Culture of Unpunished Sexual Assault in Military", Inter Press Service (April 30, 2009) at

Speier, Jackie. "Why Rapists in Military Get Away with", (June 21, 2012) at

The Huffington Post. "Military Sexual Assault Epidemic Continues to Claim Victims as Defense Department Fails Females" (October 9, 2012) at _n_1834196.html

Balis, Michael A. and Vladimir. "Flight of the Phoenix: The Red Air Force during the Battle of Stalingrad" (no date) at

Berger, John. "Ways of Seeing" (London: Peter Smith Inc., 1972): 54. Jacobs, Martin. "The WWII Pinup: An Overview" at

Mendelson, Sarah E. "Barracks and Brothels. Peacekeepers and Human Trafficking in the Balkans" (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Report, February 2005)

Fischer, Ian. "Army's Adultery Rule is don't get Caught", The New York Times (May 17, 1997) at html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

Mies, Maria. "Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour" (London: Zed Books, 1986): 63 Sturdevant, Saundra. "Who Benefits? U.S. Military, Prostitution, and Base Conversion", in Marguerite R. Waller, et. al. (eds.), Frontline Feminisms: Women, War, and Resistance (London and New York: Routledge, 2001): 140-156

Herold, Marc W. "Holiday Cheer, Pompons, Bombs and Refugees: Thanksgiving 2001 in Afghanistan", (November 28, 2002) at

Herold, Marc W. "Scenes of Afghanistan" in "A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States' Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting" and "A Day-to-Day Chronicle of Afghanistan's Guerrilla and Civil War, June 2003-Present" (Durham: electronic data base, Dept. of Economics, University of New Hampshire, on-going) at scores of photos exploring this powerful triad of sexism-professional sports-U.S military.

Rubin, Gayle. "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality", in Carole S. Vance (ed.), Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (London: Pandora, 1992): 267-293 at

Lardner, Richard. "Petraeus Case Shows FBI's Authority to Read Gmail, Other Email Services", Huffington Post (November 12, 2012) at

Croydon, Helen. "Petraeus' Infidelity was his Own Affair: We've lost many competent figures to the altar of `family values'. Fidelity is a lifestyle choice, it is not the law." The Guardian (November 13, 2012) at

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