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 trade with 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 has engulfed our nation on the heels of the U.S. presidential election, and how – incredibly – a little honey and a lot of amorous email missives could take down America’s most beloved general, and threaten to ruin the career of yet another.
General David Petraeus, erstwhile CIA chief and U.S. commander of the Iraq theatre, not to mention one of the most admired military generals in modern times, 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 relief of command if the 20,000 plus pages of email exchanges with a civilian named Jill Kelley are to be found to have breached military codes of conduct.
The details of the scandal are the stuff of reality TV. 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, via email, anonymously threatened Jill Kelley, a family friend and Tampa socialite, warning her to stay away from him. Kelley, who billed herself as an honorary Korean consul, prompted an FBI investigation, which 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 inappropriate relationship between Kelley and General Allen – who currently oversees nearly 68,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. To make the story even murkier, the FBI agent who initially took up the investigation was discovered to have sent 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 America’s military, given our 683 bases in 38 countries, it would come as no surprise to find a billion dollar business being done 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 became 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 became an economy unto 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 U.S. army had a protocol against adulterous affairs, it sure wasn’t apparent on the streets of Saigon. In Bangkok, too, that city’s most famous red light district, Patpong, came to prominence as the direct result of American GIs on R&R.
When the U.S. left Vietnam, it also left behind thousands of mixed race children known as con lai, whose collective effort to gain entrance to the U.S. took years. Think, too, of the thousands of Amerasians still living in poverty around Subic Bay in the Philippines – at one point the largest U.S. defense facility overseas.
From that perspective, therefore, 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, a theme as old as the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The latest scandal recasts the shadow of that odious nexus across the Middle East, where a soldier venturing off base alone is in for far more than a one-night fling. In Afghanistan and Iraq, there’s little “honey” to be had even if one has the money. Meanwhile, high above the heads of frustrated U.S. soldiers, the top brass fly to and fro with their mistresses in 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 soldiers hunkered down in ongoing occupations. That’s a subject about which a real biographer or historian, not to mention the news corps, could write an epical tome.
Andrew Lam is the author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora." His next book, "Brids of Paradise Lost," a collection of short stories, is due out in March, 2013.