Petraeus to Penelope

It’s a week or so before Thanksgiving and, although the “General Petraeus sex scandal” is dominating the headlines, most of my Veterans’ Day week has been spent advising Classics majors about classes. In the case of seniors, we’ve talked about life after classes. I’m still pondering a  conversation I had this afternoon with one particular senior who’s looking forward to getting home for the holiday. It seems her father will be shipping out to Afghanistan for a second tour fairly soon. His imminent deployment is much on her mind, understandably, as are her own prospects for getting a job. While she’d like to be near home after graduation, she says, she doesn’t want to be living at home.

“My folks really need a place for the two of them alone, a place that’s theirs, without any grown-up children in it,” sh explains.  To what degree any of this has to do with her own family’s dynamics I couldn’t say, but it’s connect ed to marital fidelity, in her view. “It just really destroys a soldier’s will if they think their spouses aren’t faithful to them.  Like, what’s the point of fighting, if they have that kind of doubt?” Having never served, I’m inclined to take her word for it.

Worries about adultery are at the heart of the military tradition, needless to say. The first work of literature about war, Homer’s Iliad, has an adulterous affair at its center, while in the Odyssey, concerns about fidelity abound; the epic is peppered with references to the disastrous homecoming of Agamemnon, and Odysseus himself has slept with two women along the way. Penelope has been above reproach, of course. But when the hero arrives home at last to find his palace overrun by suitors, he quickly sets about shooting down every last one of them.  Overkill? Perhaps. But it is a work of fantasy, after all.

All of this has made me think again about the Petraeus affair.  There’s been no dearth of dime-store analysis this week about the generals’ tawdry behavior.  CNN suggests, without evidence, that the matter has more to do with national security than sex. The Christian Science Monitor claims, more plausibly, that it’s a statement about the state of the American marriage.  But, all in all, my student’s remarks about her own family’s situation throw a lot more light on what’s at stake in the scandal.  As she indicates, the ordinary soldier’s anxieties about marital infidelity are not much eased, and perhaps even exacerbated, by bad behavior at the top.  Ever since war first started being written about, unfaithfulness been a concern.

Post-script. It occurs to me that we also find in Homer the earliest reference to Ares, the god of war, who is caught in an illicit affair with Aphrodite.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Classics, Military, Mythology, Sewanee, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Petraeus to Penelope

  1. Pingback: Petraeus to Penelope |

  2. Larry Britt says:

    Some soldiers’ marriages have died of nothing more tawdry than simple neglect; one or the other partner becomes so enmeshed in whatever they’re doing to keep themselves occupied while the other is away that the relationship is simply allowed to perish for want of attention. It’s not the stuff of steamy fiction, but it’s nevertheless quite deadly.

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