Long before coming to America, the first English phrase I ever uttered was, oddly enough: "No money, no honey." The painted girls in impossibly tight, colorful miniskirts who strutted on the sidewalks near my school in downtown Saigon said it shamelessly, and loudly, as they plied their trades with the American GIs during the Vietnam War. It became an expression among us pubescent schoolboys.
"No money, no honey" was sometimes followed by this false, if ironic advertisement now popular in America as well: "Me love you long time!" Ironic since neither side, knowingly, could possibly keep to that promise, romantically or geopolitically speaking.
Nevertheless that childhood memory comes back now, decades later, as I think of the political scandal that engulfed our nation right after the US presidential election, and how, incredibly, a little honey and a lot of amorous email missives could take down America's most admired general, and threaten to ruin the career of yet another.
General David Petraeus, erstwhile CIA chief and US commander of the Iraq theatre, and one of the most respected military generals and tacticians in modern time, resigned when stories of an affair with his biographer broke. General John Allen, current commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, too, is now facing possible relieve of command if the 20,000-plus pages of email exchanges with a civilian woman named Jill Kelley are found to have breached military codes of conduct.
The details of the scandal are the kind of things that could engine a reality TV show. Call it "Housewives of Tampa Bay" if you will. Or better yet, an HBO movie, say, "From Tampa With Love?"
The gist: Paula Broadwell, Petraeus' biographer, sent anonymous threatening emails to Jill Kelley, a Petraeus family friend and Tampa socialite, telling her to stay away from him. Kelley, who billed herself as an honorary Korean consul, prompted an FBI investigation that simultaneously discovered that the threats came from Broadwell and that she and Petraeus had been conducting an adulterous affair.
But the investigation also dug up something else: a potentially impropriate relationship between Kelley and another military official, General David Allen - who currently oversees nearly 68,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. And, to make the story even murkier, the FBI agent who initially took up the investigation was discovered to have sent inappropriate shirtless images of himself to Kelley; so he, too, is now under investigation.
Some have called the complex situation a ménage à cinq, or better yet, a love pentagon.
Still, regardless of the geometry, one can always rely on this old savory caveat: sex follows the army the way bottle flies follow fresh dung. Were an economist to do a study of the money spent on prostitution by the American army, given our 700 bases or so in 38 countries, it would be no surprise if that number came up to a billion dollars yearly, if not more.
So here's an aside, and a bit of history: the term hooker itself can be traced back to the American Civil War, when Union General Joe Hooker was famous for having a flock of women following his soldiers to the extent that they were known as "Hooker's girls" or "Hooker's division."
Sex with soldiers, indeed, was so much the norm during the Vietnam War that it was an economy in and of itself. It propped up bars and fueled the black market of Saigon and Danang (soldiers sold army goods often in the same place where they conducted their amorous business). And if the US army had a protocol against adulterous affairs, it sure wasn't apparent on the streets of Saigon. During the Vietnam War, too, Bangkok's most famous red light district, Patpong, came to prominence as the direct result of American GIs on R&R.
Though despite the furtive promises of "me love you long time" in the evening, the morning is often one of furtive denial. When the US left Vietnam, it left behind thousands of mixed raced children known as con lai, and their collective effort to enter the US took years before they found success. By then so many had been deprived of education that they ended up subsisting in ethnic enclaves of Little Saigon; some joined gangs. That is to say, the army that ventures overseas often leaves a division or two of unwanted brood. (Think, too, of the thousands of Amerasians still living in poverty around Subic Bay in the Philippines - at one point the largest US defense facility overseas.)
from that perspective, it is a little perplexing to see our nation's press corps in a feeding frenzy over the rather commonplace adulterous love affair between army head honchos and socialites, as if unaware of the nature of sex and war and its consequences since the Iliad and Odyssey.
The news coverage seemed rather disproportionate to the actual deeds, and the shock seems manufactured in contrast to the real, untold story. That thousands of unwanted children born overseas from the American army rarely get to see their stories told in print, but a tryst between socialites, a Harvard-educated biographer, and top military generals becomes the distraction of the nation.
If there is a sense of inequality these modern days when sex and the army are concerned, it has to do with how little "honey" can be had in the Middle East even if one has plenty of "money," given the nature of the way wars are conducted and the prohibitive culture of the region. A soldier who ventures alone outside his base in Iraq or Afghanistan is a soldier begging for capture or a bullet in the head. From the point of view of previous soldiers fighting the war in Iraq and those still in Afghanistan, if I were to venture a guess, there are few sexual outlets to be had; but, the top brass can fly to and fro with their girlfriends-cum-biographers in their private jets.
Coupled with repeated year-long tours of duty, this leaves undoubtedly an isolated army full of frustrated men and women. The real untold story is what was and still is going on sexually with these tens of thousands of young men and women hunkered down during the Iraqi occupation and now in Afghanistan. That's a subject about which a real biographer or historian, not to mention the news corps, could write an epical tome.