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Calvin Trillin On Sex In The Military

Military Ardor

Time cover

(TIME, June 16) -- I don't know how far back the military intends to go in its investigation of illicit lovemaking, but I've thought about gathering material on the sexual activity of the guys in my Army outfit in 1959, just in case.

Sadly, if I were called on to provide a frank summary of my recollections, letting the chips fall where they may, I'd have to say that we didn't get the opportunity to commit as much adultery as we'd been hoping for.

I can't remember any sexual escapades that had any impact on what the Army calls "good order and discipline," something we regularly tried and failed to undermine in other ways with such lame schemes as attempting to drive Lieut. Sweeney mad by saluting him lefthanded.

Lieut. Sweeney, a stickler for good order and discipline, demanded a crisp salute from enlisted men. Whenever he approached a group of us, we would assign one person in the group to salute lefthanded. A thicket of arms would snap up in the regulation manner, accompanied by an enthusiastic chorus of "Good morning, SIR!" Sometimes, Lieut. Sweeney would pause after he passed us, look puzzled for a moment and then shake his head and move on. But the notion that we could have an impact on his mental health was wishful thinking.

"Good order and discipline" was the phrase used again and again at a news conference last week by Kenneth Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman, as he went about the unenviable task of trying to explain to a roomful of badgering reporters why widely different handling of various adultery cases by the Pentagon did not constitute a double standard.

For example, in the case of Air Force General Joseph W. Ralston, who may have stretched the military's "Don't-ask, don't-tell" policy practically to its limits by not mentioning an adulterous affair until he was confronted about it 13 years later, one mitigating factor was that the other party, a woman who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, was not under his command or even in the service, and thus presented no threat to good order and discipline.

I was surprised that no reporter reminded Bacon of a scene in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Stanley Kubrick's black comedy about nuclear war. Huddled in the Pentagon's secret underground war room, where a horrifying decision about whether to use the bomb has to be made, the President and his top advisers are startled into silence by the ringing of a telephone in front of the general played by George C. Scott. Picking up the receiver, Scott listens for a moment as the hushed assembly looks on, and then whispers, "I thought I told you never to call me here."

I interpreted Bacon's remarks about the importance of the chain of command as letting most of the guys in my outfit off the hook. After all, we weren't in command of anybody. And we could hardly be charged with "conduct unbecoming to an officer." When it comes to adultery, enlisted men may have reason to be grateful for a double standard.

In justifying what seemed to be a double standard that reflected favoritism toward General Ralston, Bacon said the line had to be drawn somewhere to end what had taken on some elements of a witch hunt, with old scores being settled by calls to the sexual-conduct hot line. That was his most compelling argument, I thought, although I couldn't help contemplating what exquisite use we would have made of that hot line in the days of Lieut. Sweeney.

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