TIME relationships

Two Real Stories That Will Change Your Mind About Cheating

This article originally appeared on Refinery 29.com.

Illustrated by Anna Sudit

Jealousy is probably one of the most toxic emotions out there. It’s a monster of a feeling — all-encompassing. At its worst, it can make you lose sight of yourself entirely. Being in the throes of jealousy can feel like a primal kind of anger.And, yet; is it possible that infidelity, and the feelings it evokes, are at least in part social constructions? Shouldn’t we at least entertain the idea that the notion of monogamous, lifelong partnership — of fidelity as the ultimate golden rule in love — might be just another box on the Puritanical checklist?It’s a hot topic, one that tugs at a lot of very tender heartstrings for a lot of people. Two of those people agreed to write about their experiences with cheating; read on and see if their perspectives change your mind, or at least make you think.

Kelly Bourdet, Refinery29 health and wellness director: Well, it happens to most people, so we might as well get over it.

Illustrated by Anna Sudit

Infidelity is as difficult to study as it is to define. In a time with so many ways to cheat, our concept of infidelity is often reverse-engineered; we arrive at our definitions based on what, subjectively, we believe would hurt us. Short of having straight-up sexual intercourse with someone outside of the confines of a monogamous relationship (this, I think, is pretty commonly agreed upon to count as ‘cheating’), there are a myriad of other behaviors that some of us feel (sort of) bad about.

Life offers no shortage of situations that are firmly planted in the grey area between accepting praise from your boss and ending up in bed with him or her after a night of “working late.” These include, but are not limited to: texting, sexting, going out to drinks one-on-one, crushing, flirting, emoticon-laden Gchat…the list goes on. We make increasingly arbitrary delineations between physical cheating, emotional cheating, cyber cheating, and so on. We focus both on the intention and the action. But, at the root of any infidelity is a subjective sense of betrayal — one that hinges upon a set of rules that’s likely unique to the specific relationship.

(MORE: How to Survive and Thrive After Cheating)

Figures on infidelity vary widely. This makes sense: Those keeping affairs a secret are likely to withhold that information from their friendly sexuality researcher. But, as a starting point, one 1997 study found that an affair had occured in 40% to 76% of marriages. Keep in mind, though, that this study only examined heterosexual marriages. A more recent study, out this year, found that over 50% of both men and women had committed infidelity at some point — and this study surveyed gay men and lesbian women in addition to heterosexual men and women. So, while we don’t really know how many people have cheatin’ hearts, it’s likely most of us will be touched by infidelity in some way.

In her 2007 book, Lust in Translation, former Wall Street Journal reporter Pamela Druckerman explores how various cultures across the globe deal with infidelity: “Americans are the worst, both at having affairs and dealing with the aftermath,” she told Men’s Health. “Adultery crises in America last longer, cost more, and seem to inflict more emotional torture.” It appears the French, on the other hand, are more accepting of infidelity. In a survey conducted in 2012, only 47% of French people said it was “morally unacceptable” for married people to have an affair (for reference, 84% of Americans believe it’s morally unacceptable).

Illustrated by Anna Sudit

I’m not arguing that cheating itself is a good idea. What I’m more concerned with is how drastically we react to it, and how much we let it upend our relationships. Is cheating on your partner a shitty move? Absolutely. Is it the absolute worst, most terrible, heartbreaking event of your lives together? Well, that’s subjective. But, I don’t think it has to be.

I’ve been cheated on before, and it didn’t feel great. But, in retrospect, it made perfect sense — and it actually wasn’t that big of deal. My S.O. at the time traveled constantly for his job, often to Los Angeles. Eventually, it came out that he had been hooking up with someone else in LA. Was I mad at the time? Yeah, of course. But, I also realized that we were both in our 20s, we were apart for a significant amount of time, and we both worked in industries that had us out late at night. Taking all this into account, cheating wasn’t such a huge surprise.

(MORE: Why Does Cheating Feel So Good?)

We cling so desperately to a rigid notion of monogamy, and monogamy is a fine goal to have. But, when someone makes a very human mistake or falls short of our happily-ever-after ideals, we freak out. By all means, an instance of infidelity should give pause; a pattern of infidelity definitely means something. Maybe there’s a fundamental problem within the relationship. But, maybe there’s not. The ultimate goal of any relationship should be to have honest and open communication — to be able to communicate your desires without cheating. But, when that doesn’t happen, there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It’s easy to sit primly on the expectation of a perfectly monogamous relationship. It’s generally accepted that cheating is a horrible betrayal that wounds people terribly. But, haven’t we created that stigma ourselves? By building cheating up to be a life-altering event of devastation, we convince ourselves that it is one. Expecting a mistake-free relationship — and life — seems a bit unrealistic. So, if you cheat or are cheated on, my advice is to figure out why it happened, figure out what you want, and then move on.

Rosemary Downs, writer, 24: Is cheating a big deal? If you’re calling it cheating, then yes, it’s a problem.

Illustrated by Anna Sudit

The weird thing is, I wish I could be okay with non-monogamy. Intellectually, I really believe that overcoming jealousy and accepting that you can’t hold ownership over another person is one of the most enlightened things you can do. Unfortunately, I can’t — no matter how hard I try — reconcile that with the overwhelming emotional reaction I have to even the very idea of being cheated on (much less the actual experience of it). Maybe, someday, that will change — but for now, I ask anyone I’m with to be with me and only me. If they can’t, that’s going to be a problem.Before cheating happened to me, I definitely fancied myself the kind of person who would take it in stride — maybe even take some lovers of my own to match. I had joked with my boyfriend about my “suspicions,” but I never took them seriously. I was blindsided when they turned out to be true. I can’t explain the intensity of what I felt or how angry I was; there are no words, only me smashing things and tearing my hair out, as melodramatic as that might sound. It was a blow to my ego that I had never experienced before, and as someone with a pretty fragile self image, such a blow was disastrous. I honestly don’t know if it will ever be repaired. Seeing infidelity travel from outside the realm of my imagination to inside my everyday existence changed me fundamentally. It felt like an irrefutable blemish on my person.The odd thing is, I didn’t take out that anger nearly as much as I believe I should have. I don’t think anyone should be cruelly punished or berated for cheating, because while it can be a despicable and heartless act, it can also be simply a stupid one, or a lapse in judgment, or even a manifestation of deeper internal issues. But, I do think things would have progressed better for everyone if I’d been bold enough to make the true extent of the damage known to those around me. I should have yelled and screamed and thrown things (not heavy things, but something) when I first found out, like I often dream about doing now. Catharsis, I suppose, is the preferred term.

Illustrated by Anna Sudit

Or, maybe I should have just “chosen my own happiness,” or whatever it is people say on Pinterest. Maybe I should have been progressive and open-minded enough to remain unfazed, uninsulted, and unbroken. But, ultimately, at this stage of my life, I do not have that choice, or that power. So, I ask my partner never to cheat again — and I will ask this of anyone else I am with in the future, too.

Everyone has their requirements. Some people could never be with a person who wasted water or hadn’t read Proust; I can’t be with someone who doesn’t give our relationship a special priority — one that is not matched or even mimicked by something on the side. In return, it’s my responsibility to curb my jealousy when it is unwarranted, and to accept that this agreement is about mutual trust, not about complete ownership or snooping on each other’s emails. If we can’t agree on this point, then we just aren’t a good match.

People have told me that I should love and accept myself in spite of what’s happened, that I should build a kind of self confidence that is independent of the events of my life (which, I admit, in the grand scheme of things, has been pretty cushy). But, ultimately, the reason I can justify my point of view on cheating is a belief I hold pretty firmly: that self-love is not an isolated thing that lives high atop a mountain and is untouched by the elements. It is shaped by the other egos around it. That’s not a bad thing, nor is it something to reject in favor of some Randian ideal. In fact, it’s a challenge we should all aspire to meet.

Simply put, it’s a matter of respect, and if one partner asks for fidelity — if (and this is an important if) fidelity is something possible and acceptable for both partners — it’s a small but important kindness to honor that request. There’s a basic equation at play. If being cheated on hurts your partner, and you love your partner, then you shouldn’t do it. What could be clearer than that?

(MORE: What I Learned When My Boyfriend Cheated on Me)

TIME College football

Notre Dame Benches 4 Football Players Over Cheating Charges

The players are suspected of submitting papers that others had written for them

Officials at the University of Notre Dame are investigating four members of the school’s football team for suspected academic dishonesty, the school announced Friday. The players, who helped the team win the 2012 Bowl Championship Series, will not be allowed to attend practice or play in games for an unspecified period of time.

“Young people sometimes make bad decisions, but our job is to hold them accountable,” said Rev. John I. Jenkins, the school’s president, in press conference.

Evidence of the cheating, which consisted of submitting classwork that had been written by others, emerged on July 29, and the school’s general counsel initiated an investigation, according to a press release.

“We’re going to have this investigation go wherever it leads us, and we’re going to be thorough,” said Jack Swarbrick, director of athletics at Notre Dame.

Jenkins said the investigation is still ongoing and that the school would initiate a committee to consider the allegations in accordance with the school’s honor code. There is no evidence that any of the coaching staff or academic personnel knew about the alleged misconduct, he said.

Notre Dame’s football team has fared well in recent years. The four players in question played on the 2012 team that made it to the BCS national championship. Jenkins said that the NCAA has been notified of the investigation, and said that it is possible that the school will vacate its wins during past competition as the players would have been ineligible under NCAA rules due to their academic dishonesty.

Notre Dame’s opening home game against Rice is scheduled for August 30th.

TIME Marriage

Are You ‘Monogamish’? A New Survey Says Lots of Couples Are

Guy D'Alema/USA Network

Having kids makes people want to stray and social networks help them

Perhaps because the premise of its new original drama series about a cheating married couple, Satisfaction, is not depressing enough for couples, the USA Network conducted a survey on cheating and marital satisfaction among Gen X and Y.

Some of the survey’s findings are not surprising. The arrival of children and the subsequent triangulation of the relationship and lack of bandwidth, time, money and energy makes a couple far more susceptible to the desire to stray. And the rise of the social networks make such straying much easier: easier to start, easier to arrange and easier to hide. (It may make it a little harder to end quietly though, especially if one of the parties feels aggrieved.)

Some other findings are a little more unexpected, however. For the vast majority of folks 18 to 49 years old, at least in Austin, Omaha, Nashville and Phoenix, where this study took place, cheating is an absolute dealbreaker. A full 94% of respondents would rather never marry than end up with a person they knew would cheat and 82% of them have “zero tolerance” for infidelity. Yet 81% of people admitted they’d cheat if they knew there wouldn’t be any consequences and 42% of the survey takers, in equal parts men and women, admitted to already having cheated.

If people must seek out some strange, the participants in USA’s survey suggest they really take it elsewhere; 81% believe it’s better to cheat with a stranger than a friend.

Why would it ever be O.K. to betray a spouse? More than half of the respondents (54%) believe cheating could be justified, particularly if the other party had already cheated first. Presumably, many of those were also in the group that already cheated.

The idea that monogamy “is a social expectation but not a biological reality,” as the survey put it, was true for more than half of all the Gen X and Y respondents. (The survey apparently didn’t ask if it was neither of those, but a learned skill, like, say, reading, gymnastics or coding.) But somewhat surprisingly, only one in five men preferred the idea of what could be called a “monogamish” relationship—where people are mostly faithful—over a monogamous one.

In other findings, the study—which, as an opt-in internet survey of only 1000 people has not been peer reviewed, lacks rigor and should not be used to make life decisions—also uncovered these nuggets:

*More than 40% of men 25 to 34 have discussed having a three way with their significant other. (No details, alas, on how these suggestions were received…)

*Almost three quarters of the GenX and Ys questioned think a few more hoops to jump through before people get married wouldn’t hurt, including living together for at least a year beforehand (35%), being required to finish high school (24%) and genetic testing if the couple wants kids (9%).

*Should that not prove to be enough, that’s O.K. More than half of the survey participants think a marriage that doesn’t have to last forever to be considered successful.

*And finally, in a sign that no celebrity behavior goes unnoticed, the Paltrow Martin style of split is getting some traction: a third of the survey takers say they’d rather “uncouple” than divorce.

TIME relationships

How to Dump a Cheater: Say It With a Freeway Banner

Why get mad, when you can publicly humiliate the jerk instead?

Revenge fantasies can be fun, but are often illegal, immoral or just too complicated. But two women in the United Kingdom appear to have found a simple way to get back at their lothario — who was allegedly dating both of them at the same time — with maximum impact.

On Wednesday, a banner appeared on a bridge above a busy freeway near the cities of Newcastle and Gateshead, which read: “Steve Frazer You’re Dumped! By Both of Your Girlfriends.” A joint selfie of the two women and a photo of the (alleged) cheater were emblazoned on the banner as well.

To be clear, we have no idea what the backstory is behind the banner — nor does anyone else who’s gone public, anyway. The most obvious scenario would be that the ladies, who bare a disturbing resemblance to each other, found out that their man was dating both of them and were pissed. (Wait, wasn’t there a movie about this?)

Whatever the case, we’re pretty sure Steve was squirming in his car seat when he saw the banner, which was taken down later in the day. As one tweep noted, “Not a great day for Steve Frazer”.

TIME relationships

Cameron Diaz Already Knows What’s Going to Happen In Your Relationship

Cameron Diaz is living her best life and she can’t stop talking about it. Whether she’s helping ladies appreciate their pubic hair or sharing her least favorite word with Oprah, she’s not afraid to tell us how it really is. And that’s not even mentioning The Body Book, her recent guide to helping women love their bodies.

In addition to talking up her book, Diaz has been promoting her movie The Other Woman, which is about — wait for it — a woman who finds out her boyfriend is married to another woman, only to find out that there’s a third woman involved. Also, Nicki Minaj factors in somehow. During a recent interview with the British version of OK! Magazine about the film, she delivered some real talk about how our relationships are all probably doomed:

Everybody has been cheated on, everyone will be cheated on. I can’t fix that, I don’t know how, I don’t have any judgment on anybody, I don’t know how to fix the problem. We are human beings,we are complicated -– you cannot go through life without tallying up a few scars, you cannot go through life unscathed, it’s just what it is. It’s all meant to happen, take your lessons, figure it out, move on.

[h/t The Cut]

TIME Creativity

Cheating is a Good Thing (Sometimes)

Troels Graugaard—Getty Images/Vetta

A liberated mind is a creative mind, and nothing frees you up like breaking the rules

Want to compose a great symphony, write a classic novel, come up with a brilliant new app? Cheat on your taxes first—or on your spouse, or on your poker buddies. It’s easy—and fun, too.

That’s the unsettling implication of a new study released by the Association for Psychological Science and conducted by business professors at Harvard University and the University of Southern California. The investigators recruited a sample group of volunteers and had them complete a math puzzle in which multiple columns of figures were added in multiple ways. The subjects were told they would be paid for each correct answer and, incidentally, that they’d be grading themselves. Nobody would check their work before they got their cash prize. So: free money, right?

That’s how it seemed. A dispiriting 59% of the subjects lied about how well they did and took the ill-gotten payoff. All of the subjects were then given what’s known as a remote association test in which they were asked to come up with one word that connects a group of three other words (“sore,” “shoulder” and “sweat” can all be connected by “cold,” for example). The two exercises ought to have been unconnected, but there was this revelation: The people who cheated on the math test did significantly better on the word test. The implication: Breaking the rules frees up the mind and makes it easier to be creative.

In some ways, that’s no surprise. Jazz is all about rule-breaking, tossing out the conventional structure of music and replacing it with something closer to improvisational anarchy. Picasso blew up traditional ideas of shape, perspective and proportion. And there’s not a successful novelist alive who would sell so much as a single book without making use of the artful sentence fragment, the well-deployed redundancy, even the wholly invented word.

There’s actually hard brain science supporting the proposition that the best ideas can come from breaking laws of reason. Paul McCartney, Mary Shelley and Jack Nicklaus came up with “Yesterday,” Frankenstein and the perfect golf swing—respectively, of course—in a dream. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows that this is because the occipital lobe, where visual and auditory processing live, powers up when we’re asleep at the same time the prefrontal cortex—the cognitive traffic cop that keeps us thinking in an orderly way—goes off duty. When the lawman’s not looking, we can get away with all kinds of creative mayhem.

But not every dishonest person uses the spark of rule-breaking inventiveness to write a song or win the Masters. The wiseguys who dreamed up bundled mortgages or credit default swaps probably felt a delicious frisson of freedom too when they were inventing their toxic pile of economy-tanking instruments. The same is surely true of the smug political operatives who decide it’s “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” or who burgle offices or political headquarters to dig up dirt on their enemies. The more rules you break, the more imaginative you become the next time you do it.

Sometimes, the bad guys are being goaded in their creative misbehavior. “We’ve got a counter-government here and we’ve got to fight it,” Richard Nixon told Charles Colson in the run-up to the Watergate crimes. “Do whatever has to be done. … I don’t want to be told why it can’t be done.” And so he wasn’t—and so they did it.

But most of the time, the Nixon mob came up with their exceedingly unethical antics on their own—as long ago as college political campaigns, when they called their dirty tricks “rat-f–king.” And want to bet each time a rat got, well, effed, the dirty tricksters got better and better at what they were doing?

In the exquisite play Sideman, the lead character describes the way his father, a jazz trumpeter, could make things up as he went along, reacting in real time to what his bandmates were doing:

When he’s up there blowing, he’s totally in touch with everything that’s going on around him. Ziggy bends a note, he echoes it instantly. A car horn sounds outside, he puts it into his or harmonizes under it a second later.

Jazz is wondrous lawlessness; so is cubism. Credit default swaps and political break-ins are nothing of the kind. But broken rules are broken rules. What we do with the freedom that results is up to us.

TIME relationships

Want a European Lover? Find a Brit

Among denizens of the Old World, the British are the most faithful, while the French finish last, according to a new survey.

If you’re looking for love with a European, and fidelity is a must, you might cast your lot with the Brits. According to a study by Gleeden, a European dating site for extramarital affairs, the British are the most faithful among all Europeans, with 40% of men and 29% of women reporting cheating on their partner.

Not so surprisingly, the French and Italians are the least faithful among residents of the E.U. (President François Hollande, anyone?) Over half of French and Italian men and a third of the women reported cheating on their partner, according to the Telegraph.

Gleeden’s survey polled 5,000 Europeans and found that the British were also less likely to cheat compared to polled Belgians, Spanish and Germans. Overall, women were less likely to cheat compared to men in every country.

The British were also the most likely to feel regret after cheating on their partner, with about half of them saying they felt bad afterward. Only 28% of the French said they regretted their infidelities.

[The Telegraph]

TIME relationships

Studies Show Male Behavior Is Totally Explainable

man being weird
Claus Christensen—Getty Images

Men don't like to have doors opened for them. So what?

It seems that every week a new study makes headlines by presenting meticulously collected data on how men’s behavior deviates from the norm, is stuck in some neanderthal pattern out of keeping with progress and evolution, or is just plain odd. But how strange are men really? When the studies are read more closely, much of the mystery of male conduct disappears.

You may have read one of those depressing reports about how men whose wives or life-partners earned more were more inclined to cheat. This seems counter-intuitive and odd, since the men would be jeopardizing not only their relationship, but their ability to eat three meals a day and live in a house. (Plus, the ingrates!) But the study also found that the men most likely to cheat were completely unemployed and, moreover, that there weren’t actually that many cheaters in general. In one study it was only 3.8%. So some guys who don’t have anything to do and are depressed and have no money indulge their less noble impulses. That’s not really such a long bow to draw.

This week, new research suggests that, shockingly, men feel bad about themselves if somebody else opens the door for them. Women don’t. (Apparently this is worth researching.) This is not, by the way, the walk through the door and leave it open so the dude behind you doesn’t have it slam in his face type of opening. This is the jump in front of the guy and let him pass before you. Men are uncomfortable with this. To be honest, a lot of women don’t love it either, since it seems to suggest that we are too fragile to do as puny task as pushing a door. Even my colleague Matt Sterling, who has been in a wheelchair all his life, says he’s not nuts about someone opening the door for him; he prefers the push button self-opening version. (“As I’ve gotten older, it bothers me less when people help me,” he says, “as you understand it makes them feel better.”) It’s not too surprising then that men, for whom physical prowess is a defining characteristic, might be appalled that somebody thinks they cannot cross a threshhold without help.


TIME Military

Are You Smarter Than a Nuclear Launch Officer?

A pair of Air Force missile launch control officers, having passed their monthly proficiency tests, pull alert at a Minuteman III missile site.
A pair of Air Force missile launch control officers, having passed their monthly proficiency tests, pull alert at a Minuteman III missile site. SrA Javier Cruz Jr.—Air Force

Here’s the type of questions Air Force missileers are cheating on…and why

Remember when you took your driver’s test and had to answer all those questions about who had the right-of-way at an intersection? If you’ve been paying attention in recent weeks, you know that the Air Force is investigating nearly half of the 200-airman force that commands the 150 nuclear-tipped Minuteman III missiles at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base for allegedly cheating, or tolerating those who did, on their monthly proficiency tests.

These tests, no surprise, are tougher than driver’s ed.

A launch officer and instructor who left the Air Force in 2011 has provided questions representative of those he says he asked his airmen about the missiles they were monitoring. To help you understand their language, you need to know that each launch-control crew is in a numbered Launch Control Center. So Foxtrot LCC is F-01. And all of the missiles the Foxtrot crew controls are numbered, 2 through 11 (F-02, F-03, etc).

Enough test prep.

Number 2 pencil at the ready? Start!

1) An EMT-team [an electromechanical maintenance team consisting of enlisted missile maintainers] has penetrated L03 and L05 to clean a clogged drain in the sump system after a big spring storm. It’s been 15 minutes since your last authentication with the team and you receive a seismic alarm at L04. After referencing LF [Launch Facility] Faults, what will you do?

A) Declare Security Situation?

B) Contact FSC [flight security controller] and have him get two authentications from the security guards at L03?

C) Contact L05 and get 2 authentications from the EMT Team?

D) Contact MMOC [Missile Maintenance Operations Control]?

2) If an OSR [Operational Status Response] is not received from an LF within the previous _____ the LF will report LFDN [Launch Facility Down].

A) [Number of] minutes?

B) [Number of] seconds?

C) All of the above?

D) None of the above?

3) A team is at F10 to do a MGS R&R [flight computer removal and replacement]. The FSC and you have received good authentications from the team and have passed both the launcher combinations. Thirty minutes later F10 reports MOSR X [Missile Operational Status Response X]. What is the first thing you do?

A) Reference LF Faults?

B) Contact FSC and have him request authentications since the MOSR was unexpected?

C) Contact Team Immediately over SIN [dedicated phone network at the LF]?

D) Emergency Launch LF Evacuation?

The time allotted for this test is over.

Please put your pencils down.

(To see if you’re ready for a career underground, check out the answer to Question 1 here, Question 2 here, and Question 3 here.)

Vandenberg team launches Minuteman III
A Minuteman III lifts off. Mark P. Mackley—Air Force

These are not simple questions. In fact, two of the tests, involving missiles and the codes that would be used to launch them, are open-book exams, according to former launch officers, also known as missileers. But having thousands of pages of technical orders on Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile ops isn’t a lot of help, unless you know where to look. The third test—emergency war orders—is closed-book, given in a classified classroom known as “the vault,” and is the toughest of the lot. Most of the tests are multiple-choice, with some fill-in-the-blanks thrown in. They range from 20 to 30 questions, and take about 90 minutes, according to former ICBMers (and no, a #2 pencil is not required).

Scoring 100% on these tests has been the only way to earn promotions within the missile force, and possibly escape from it, ex-Air Force missileers say. Most who serve in the underground bunkers overseeing the nation’s fleet of 450 Minuteman III missiles did not volunteer for the assignment, and many want to leave. Air Force officials say that the missiles’ security has never been jeopardized, and that the tests are a minor element of crew training. Yet integrity is supposed to be non-negotiable in a force that boasts “perfection is the standard.”

The problems with the ICBM force, military and outside experts say, stem from the Cold War’s end and the pressures of the nation’s post-9/11 conflicts. Those twin challenges have dulled the glory and pride once associated with the nuclear mission. “Many current senior Air Force leaders interviewed were cynical about the nuclear mission, its future, and its true (versus publicly stated) priority to the Air Force,” a 2012 Air Force report said.

The pressure to cheat can be intense: Some tests were scored to two decimal places—99.44%, for example, like the purported purity of Ivory Soap. “The cheating is pervasive,” says a former Minuteman crew operator who left the service in 2010. “It’s pervasive because the leadership places so much emphasis on rote test scores to advance.” In the wake of the recent scandal at Malmstrom, airmen retook tests under intense scrutiny to ensure there was no cheating; the average test score was 95.5%. “So they’re not cheating to pass —they’re cheating to get 100s because so much emphasis is placed on test scores to advance,” this former missileer says.

Peace is our profession
Missileers pull alerts underground protected from nearby nuclear blasts by eight-ton doors like this. Master Sgt. Lance Cheung—Air Force

Most tests are taken by groups of 30 to 40 airmen at the missiles’ home base. Three tests monthly per person means 36 of these tests annually, plus additional inspections and alert drills. Like any group that works together under unrelenting pressure, there is an ethos to help your comrades, former missileers say.

“They’re a team in the capsule, and the five capsules together are a team out at the squadron,” says the officer who left in 2010. “When faced with the need to score 100% to advance in the missile career field, well, guess what, they’re going to bind together and act as a unit to meet that challenge together.”

Early test-takers would share the answers with those taking the tests later. “Answer keys” were drafted, listing the precise answers, or a simple count—”the test has four As [answers], six Bs, eight Cs and two Ds,” says the ex-Air Force officer who left in 2011. The missileers shared such “gouge” via paper—tucked into flight-suit pockets for surreptitious glances during the test—or via cell phones.

Cheating was encouraged by higher-ups. “The commander would sit down with you and say, `These tests are ridiculous—you can try to do it all by yourself, which is noble, but you’ll but you’ll never be promoted,'” says the missiler who left the service in 2011. “There was times I was saved from failing by cheating. The testing got so ridiculous that it was no longer testing your ability to be a missile operator—it was testing your ability to take tests.”

A favorite patch among ICBM crews, who often pull alerts in pajamas. Wired

The higher-ranking squadron and group commanders played along. “Some of the colonels were so lazy they’d call and tell me to fill in the answers for them,” the ex-missileer said of their quarterly recertification tests. “I very rarely saw the colonels take the test honestly.”

A second former missileer agrees. “The higher-ups generally don’t hold squadron and group commanders responsible,” he says. “The system is so ingrained with this poisonous mentality that your generals and colonels—all those who have succeeded and been promoted in nukes—are the ones who have excelled in this environment, and so they perpetuate it.”

Some senior officers figured out what was happening. “The colonels caught on that there was some kind of cheating going on, so we started getting multiple test versions,” says the officer who left in 2011. “They’d tell us: `Don’t cheat off your neighbor—we have different tests.'” But the changes were relatively modest—mostly, questions were just moved around—and cheating persisted. The cheating could be deduced when higher headquarters would send in their own tests and test-givers, and more airmen would flunk.

This led to disillusion. “You get into a situation where being a good officer and being a good missileer are mutually exclusive,” says Tim Cerniglia, who served on a MX Peacekeeper crew at F.E. Warren in 1997-99 and says he remains in touch with currently-serving ICBM operators.

What’s worse than the emphasis on perfect scores is what it hides, the officer who left in 2010 says. “Many missileers were bad test takers and thought to be bad missileers, but they were the best,” he says. “These tests are supposed to determine whether you’re fit to be a leader, an instructor or an evaluator, but it has nothing to do with real leadership.”

Working 'down in the hole'
Beyond the missileers, thousands of enlisted airmen like Airman 1st Class Matthew Lahood tend to the constant maintenance the Minuteman missile force requires. Airman 1st Class Chris Boitz—Air Force

Part of the problem may be the shifting responsibility for the care and feeding of the ICBM force. Over the past two decades, the Air Force has moved command of the missiles around like an unwanted child. They bounced from Curtis LeMay’s Strategic Air Command, where they had been since becoming operational in 1959, to Air Combat Command in 1992. Then they moved to Space Command in 1993, and finally to Global Strike Command in 2009, created as a mini-SAC following earlier nuclear snafus involving misplaced nuclear weapons and components. As a result of those mishaps, the pace and difficulty of testing and inspections picked up. “The inspections are so frequent,” a 2011 Pentagon report noted, “that the unit has neither enough time nor resources to correct deficiencies.”

The cheating is the latest in a string of embarrassing revelations concerning the nation’s nuclear forces. The Air Force is investigating three Minuteman airmen, two of whom also are under investigator for cheating, for suspected drug use. Missileers have repeatedly left their capsules’ blast doors open, violating regulations designed to prevent unauthorized entry. The service fired Major General Michael Carey—in charge of all the nation’s ICBMs—last October after an official trip to Moscow where he drank excessively and cavorted with “suspect” women. During an en route layover at a Swiss airport, witnesses told Pentagon investigators that Carey “appeared drunk and, in the public area, talked loudly about the importance of his position as commander of the only operational nuclear force in the world and that he saves the world from war every day.” The Navy revealed Feb. 4 that it is looking into allegations that enlisted sailors cheated on tests involving the nuclear reactors that power its submarines and aircraft carriers.

Back in the missile fields, former officers say there needs to be a wholesale shakeup in how missile commanders are selected and promoted. “This pressure-cooker environment has just grown so unhealthy,” says the officer who left in 2010 and believes the nation needs to maintain its ICBM force. “Squadron commanders aren’t expected to lead—they expect their people to get 100% on every test and every evaluation, and they expect perfection, but they’re not expected to meet those standards themselves,” he says. “They’d rather sit in their office reading emails on their Blackberries than leading from the front.”

It has become a self-perpetuating caste. “It’s command incest—you get a bad leader who finds a subordinate who’s just as bad as he is, and he promotes that subordinate, and on and on. It’s been going on for four decades now and so you mostly get a crop of leaders who are more interested in their careers than they are in actually leading,” he says. “Leadership is a human endeavor, and the Air Force takes the humanity out of it.”

Oscar-01 Launch Control Facility
The tip of the nuclear spear. TSGT Bob Wickley—Air Force

In a world of city-killing ICBMs, and the $1 billion spent annually operating them, it’s the little slights that send big signals to the nation’s ICBM crews. “They perceive a lack of knowledge of, and respect for, their mission from within the larger Air Force,” that 2011 Pentagon report said. Service-wide education, recruiting and PR “seem to ignore the ballistic missile mission.” Their commander wears only three stars—a lieutenant general—unlike the four-star generals who command other fighting units. “This is widely noted in the strategic operating forces,” the Defense Science Board study said. A final indignity: “As a missile crew watches the computer display for their mission briefing before starting each period of duty, they see the official classified Air Force screen saver which features a single weapons system—an F-22” fighter (which, like the ICBM force, has never seen combat).

“I believe that we do in fact have some systemic problems in the force,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Wednesday. “The need for perfection has created a climate of what I think is undue stress and fear among the missileers about their futures.” Her service is pondering how to restore a sense of mission to missile duty, including bonuses, medals and patching the “leaking roofs” that she saw on her recent visits to the nation’s ICBM bases at Malmstrom, Minot, N.D., and F.E. Warren, Wyo. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told missileers at F.E. Warren on Jan. 9 that the Pentagon plans to develop a Minuteman replacement “to keep that deterrent stronger than it’s ever been.” He has ordered a pair of investigations into the missile force’s culture and management to see what changes are needed to restore its sense of duty and pride.

Given the missiles’ Cold War bloodline, it comes as no surprise in a post-Cold War world that ICBM backers don’t see their arsenal as a relic. “I don’t think we’re any more a Cold War force than an aircraft carrier, or Special Ops, or the UH-1 helicopter,” Lieut. General James Kowalksi, then-chief of Air Force Global Strike Command, said in July. A Russian attack has become such a “remote” possibility that it’s “hardly worth discussing,” he added. “The greatest risk to my force is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid.”

Kowalski became the No. 2 officer in U.S. Strategic Command in October, overseeing the nation’s entire nuclear arsenal. He took the post after President Obama fired Vice Admiral Tim Giardina for allegedly gambling in an Iowa casino with counterfeit chips. The charge—a felony—happened at Horseshoe Council Bluffs Casino, a 15-minute drive across the Missouri River from the nation’s nuclear headquarters.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser