Discuss as:

Panetta orders review of ethical standards amid allegations of misconduct among high-level military leaders

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday ordered the Pentagon to dig into and determine why an alarming number of generals and admirals have been snared by a variety of ethical lapses and misconduct allegations, headlined by the admitted marital infidelity of former four-star general and ex-CIA Director David Petraeus.

According to a statement released by the Department of Defense, Panetta believes that while the "vast majority" of U.S. general officers continue to abide by traditional ethical standards, he has nonetheless become concerned about the spike in alleged misbehavior among a rising number of flag officers spanning the Army, Navy and Marines.

"Over the past several months, the Secretary has spoken with the service secretaries, service chiefs, and combatant commanders about those instances when senior officers have not lived up to the standards expected of them. This has been an ongoing discussion reflecting shared concerns," the DOD release said. "This week, the Secretary directed General Dempsey to work with the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to review how to better foster a culture of stewardship among our most senior military officers.  This process is intended to reinforce and strengthen the standards that keep us a well led and disciplined military."

ISAF via Reuters file

Meet the people who have been pulled into the scandal that caused Gen. David Petraeus to resign.

Panetta was in Thailand Thursday as part of a visit to Asia. Neither Panetta's order nor the DOD statement mentioned Petraeus, who has been under FBI investigation, or Marine Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, who is involved in the Petreaus case. Allen has denied any wrongdoing.

In addition, three other top-rung commanders have recently been punished by the military or remain under investigation for alleged misconduct:

  • Army Gen. William Ward, the four-star general who once led the U.S. Africa Command was demoted Tuesday amid accusations that he spent thousands of dollars on lavish travel. He was stripped of one star and will retire. In August, a Defense Department Inspector General’s Report said Ward took an 11-day trip to Washington and Atlanta, costing $129,000 but spending just three days on official business.
  • Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair is accused of 26 violations of military law including forcible sodomy, wrongful sexual conduct, possessing pornography while deployed and conduct unbecoming of an officer. According to prosecutors, the alleged sexual assaults happened in Afghanistan, Iraq and Germany, as well as at military bases in the United States. In May, Sinclair was removed from Afghanistan, where he’d served as a deputy commander for support. An initial military hearing has ended, but there has been no decision on whether to proceed to a court martial, The Associated Press reported.
  • Navy Cmdr. Joseph E. Darlak and top officers of the San Diego-based Navy frigate USS Vandegrift were relieved of duty on Nov. 2 after a boisterous, drunken port visit to Vladivostok, Russia. Darlak was removed, the Navy said, after an investigation found he had exhibited "poor leadership and failure to ensure the proper conduct of his wardroom officers" during the three-day September stop, the Associated Press reported.

Ward, Sinclair and Darlak have not commented publicly about the charges against them.

Some military observers see the recent spate of high-profile cases of alleged misconduct as a much larger issue affecting the armed forces.

Directing combat operations on the far side of the world has separated many general officers from their families for the better part of a decade while they live in “an alternate-reality universe” – culturally insulated along with other brass – while being increasingly viewed as “untouchable,” said Frank Wuco, a retired U.S. Naval intelligence chief.

That distance and divide can put military commanders at risk of losing their moral compass, said Wuco, who hosts a weekly radio program in Tampa, Fla. In the late stages of Wuco’s intelligence career, he attended multiple meetings with then-Gen. David Petraeus who, at the time, was leading U.S. forces in the Middle East.

Wuco describes the former four-star general as “down to earth,” but he said the social status of many U.S. generals has ballooned to new heights during the two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), allowing American military leaders to “begin to live in this kind of artificial bubble.”

“With the senior guys and the flag officers, this is like the new royalty. We treat them like kings and princes. These general officers in the military, at a certain point, become untouchable,” Wuco said. “In many cases, they get their own airplanes, their own helicopters. When they walk into a room, everybody comes to attention. In the case of some of them, people are very afraid to speak up or to disagree. Being separated from real life all the time in that way probably leaves them vulnerable (to lapses in moral judgement)."

But Thomas Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, disagrees with the notion that military leadership is more insulated and that they have had their heads clouded by adulation. To Ricks, the problem is squarely centered on a wholesale loss of accountability across the landscape of the American armed forces.

"It is because the U.S. military has lost hold of the idea of accountability - that is, rewarding success and removing failures. And so people get promoted kind of mindlessly, and aren't punished when they fail repeatedly over the years," said Ricks, who also writes a blog for ForeignPolicy.com called “The Best Defense."

"Ultimately, when their failure becomes public, they may get punished. Bottom line: Today being a general is like being a tenured professor. You can do a lousy job and keep it, but if you embarrass the institution with moral lapses, you will get bounced," Ricks said.

Click here for more military-related coverage from NBC News.

As for the reports of Petraeus’ infidelity – as well as any unreported sexual dalliances involving other military leaders – ex-intelligence chief Wuco contends such behaviors within the highest levels of the military “are nothing new.”

“This type of cheating, while definitely alarming, is not off limits to the military,” Wuco said. “This is classic ‘men of a certain age.’ You’re looking at a guy who’s up there in age. He’s been working his ass off his entire adult life, separated from all of the good times everybody else has been having. I don’t think it’s anything more than: it made him feel good. It was good for his ego. He was holding the attention of a younger woman. It’s a classic story across every center of society.”

In fact, two of America's most venerated generals - Dwight D. Eisenhower and Matthew Ridgway - were known to have had romantic flings during World War II and the Korean War, but their infidelities didn't make news and certainly didn't cost them their commands.

A third World War II hero, Gen. George S. Patton, also had an extramarital affair, according to the book, "Patton," by the late Martin Blumenson.

"We’re in a different time now," said Robert O. Kirkland, a military historian who teaches at the University of Southern California. He called the Eisenhower and Ridgway liaisons with women other than their wives "documented in the historical record."

"Maybe some things in the past were overlooked," Kirkland said. "They’re now enforced."

Related content from NBCNews.com:

Follow US news from NBCNews.com on Twitter and Facebook