Eros mocks Mars
When Sarah West was appointed the first female commander of a major Royal Navy Warship, she talked about the toll life on the sea had taken on her personal relationships.
“There are drawbacks,” she said as she took charge of HMS Portland in 2012. “Years at sea probably explains why I’m still single. But every person in the military makes sacrifices.”
The difficulties of maintaining a relationship in the Navy may be one of the drawbacks of service, but having a relationship with a colleague can be even more problematic – as Cdr West discovered earlier this month, when she was sent home following an alleged affair with her third-in-command.
The case has been the subject of much media attention, with some claiming that Cdr West – who was previously married to a Navy pilot – has “let down other women in the Royal Navy”. Others have suggested that had a man been in a similar position, we might never have heard about the alleged affair - or at least it would not have made the front pages.
Because while her gender and high profile may have made this case exceptional, Cdr West is far from the first person in the military whose love life has impacted on their career. In 2011, for example, Lieutenant Commander Andrew Ainsley was sent home from another ship after allegedly having an affair with a female sailor. In 2009, it was revealed that General Sir Richard Dannatt, then head of the British army, had tried to block the promotion of Major-General Chris Hughes because of an extra-marital affair which Sir Richard believed would have reduced his moral authority over other soldiers.
And the cases that are reported are only the tip of the iceberg. Rank-and-file soldiers have stories of relationships between military personnel which are never brought to the attention of the authorities, while military lawyers are often called upon to provide advice when investigations are launched.
One such lawyer is Christopher Hill, who has been working in the field for more than 20 years. In that time, he says he has represented around 40 soldiers who have been accused of having affairs with colleagues, and subsequently find themselves facing career-threatening disciplinary action.
“The fact that someone’s having a relationship with another soldier – whether it’s an extra-marital affair or otherwise – doesn’t make them fall foul of the code of conduct,” he explains. “It’s only when it might affect the work of the military. [Didact: Which is EVERY SINGLE TIME, you lawyer scumbag.]
“There was a time when people did get thrown out just for having affairs, but the army can’t get away with that sort of thing now because of the Human Rights Act. You are entitled to have a family and private life, and they’re not allowed to get involved without good reason.” [Didact: Wrong. You are not entitled to a damn thing. You are allowed to maintain a private and a professional life, as long as you can maintain good judgement in both.]
But sometimes – as in the case of Cdr West and many others – there is good reason. “If you’re somebody’s girlfriend, are you really going to send her on patrol in Afghanistan in an area where there’s a risk of IEDs? Of course you’re not. It’s going to affect how you write her annual report; it’s going to affect the way you command her and that will influence the way other people respond to your commands.”