The world has been treated, over the last several days, to a somewhat embarrassing overlap between two of the world’s oldest professions: those of the Fighting Man and the Working Girl.
A group of Secret Service agents and associated military personnel have been removed from their duties pending the investigation of allegations that the men, part of a 200-member team visiting Cartagena, Colombia, in preparation for a visit by President Obama for the Summit of the Americas, hired prostitutes from a strip club and brought them back to their hotel.
In 193 AD, almost one hundred and eighty years after the death of Augustus, Septimius Severus (ruled 193 to 211 AD) rescinded Augustus’ ban, and allowed soldiers to marry again.
Septimius Severus was was the fifth emperor to take power during the year 193, and there were almost certainly political considerations in such a gesture toward the rank and file, as each of his four predecessors earlier in the year had been assassinated or overthrown by the military.
The relationship between prostitution and the military is nothing new. In the Bible’s book of Joshua, when the Hebrews were preparing an assault on the town of Jericho they sent in spies to scope out the city’s defenses: the city guard got wind of their presence and went looking for them, but the men hid out in the home of a prostitute named Rahab, who kept them under cover (so to speak). She was promised that, should there be a massacre after the Hebrews attacked the city, she would be spared: she was instructed to hang piece of red rope from her window to indicate which house was hers.
Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor, who ruled from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD, banned soldiers from marrying until after their 25 years of military service had been completed. (Previously many soldiers, facing campaigns lasting years, would bring wives and households with them into the field, a situation that was, at best, inefficient.) Associated with every castrum, or military base, were canabae, makeshift towns which housed the civilian engineers, doctors, and other contractors who served the military in the field; now that the men were no longer allowed to bring their own women along, prostitutes became an important part of that assembly.
In the centuries since the days of Roman Legions, soldiers fighting away from home have continued to turn to prostitutes for comfort. During the European conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries syphilis was typically referred to as “the French disease” by English soldiers and “the Italian disease” by French soldiers as each army sowed its wild oats on foreign fields, and reaped that bitter harvest. In modern times, a generation of “blue-eyed Asians” were born in Vietnam in the sixties and seventies to women working the sex trades in cities such as Bangkok and Saigon, and Russian features still appear from time to time in families living in remote villages in Afghanistan.
The US Military is guided in legal matters by a code of law called the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Similar to civilian law in many ways, the UCMJ also addresses problems relating to discipline and standards of acceptable behavior among military personnel. Sodomy and rape have long been prohibited, along with providing sex for money, but the issue of paying for sex was not addressed until 2005, when George W. Bush signed an executive order(1) amending the UCMJ to specifically prohibit the hiring of prostitutes.
In a time of intense fiscal belt-tightening, it may be useful to note that the Caribe Hotel, where the agents were staying, charges a $60 surcharge for every “working girl” brought back to the room. This expense would be, of course, over and above whatever the agents — and ultimately the US taxpayer — were paying for the services of the ladies themselves. Clearly belt tightening ought to be taken literally as well as figuratively on some occasions.
The Secret Service personnel, it should be noted, have been recalled Stateside, but there may be some question as to whether they broke any laws: prostitution is completely legal in Cartagena, Colombia. It’s possible that the most they may be guilty of is a lapse of judgement and the abuse of a taxpayer-funded expense account.
For the military men, however — five, so far — caught up in the scandal, the consequences could be quite a bit more dire. If they are found guilty of violating that 2005 amendment to Article 134 of the UCMJ they could face dishonorable discharge, loss of all pay and allowances, and even up to one year in jail.
It seems a little strange to me that the men assigned to guarantee the security of the President of the United States may be held to a less stringent standard of behavior than the military men sent to assist them, but I suppose an argument could be made either way: is the Secret Service under-reacting, or is the US Military over-reacting?
Personally, I think both may be true: whatever our opinions about prostitution generally (and remember that it is legal and regulated in Cartagena) I think the Secret Service agents involved in this episode showed incredibly bad judgement, and they should at least face some sort of administrative punishment. They were not sent to Columbia to party in strip clubs.
As for the military personnel, I have mixed feelings: again, I think this episode shows an appalling immaturity, but I’m not sure the punishment is appropriate to the crime. These men may be seeing their entire careers crash and burn on the basis of an indiscretion that soldiers have been committing since the days of Moses.
I suppose it’s also instructive to remember that if somebody hadn’t tried to get out of paying the prostitutes their full fee, prompting the girls to call the police, none of this would have ever even come to light.
I doubt if Joshua’s men would have been stupid enough to try to cheat Rahab in the cold light of morning.
NOTE: Since I first posted this, the tally of military men involved, allegedly Marines, has increased to nine. Eleven Secret Service agents are implicated.
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