WASHINGTON -- For the first time in history, the Army on Tuesday demoted a major general two ranks and forced him into retirement as a colonel for having adulterous affairs with the wives of his subordinates.

Maj. Gen. John Maher, until recently a vice director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was demoted by Louis Caldera, the secretary of the Army. The demotion will include a reduction of $18,000 in Maher's annual pension, which could cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime."The two-grade reduction from major general to colonel should send a very clear, strong signal that there is no place in the Army for this behavior," Caldera said.

Maher, 51, was found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer in an administrative hearing in September and received the maximum sentence: loss of half his monthly pay for two months and a letter of reprimand. Besides his affairs with two officers' wives, Maher also tried to have "an improper personal relationship" with an enlisted soldier.

The far more severe punishment of losing his two stars was applied by Caldera in a review of the general's retirement. In explaining the severity of this action, an Army official pointed out that the admiral and general commanding the forces at Pearl Harbor received the same punishment for their failures in the face of the Japanese attack.

This is the second time in three months that the Army has demoted a general for sexually harassing the wives of subordinates. In September, in an unprecedented action, Maj. Gen. David Hale, who had already retired, was reduced by one rank for having adulterous affairs with the wives of four subordinates.

Hale had been allowed to retire even though charges against him were under investigation. The Army was immediately accused of employing a double standard. Members of Congress, in particular, contended that senior officers were allowed to escape punishment for sexual misconduct that could have led to more rigorous prosecution of a junior officer or enlisted soldier.

Having learned their lesson from that episode, Army officials said they denied Maher's request for an early retirement while his case was under investigation.

While Army officials said that these two demotions of generals demonstrate that such behavior will not be tolerated at any rank, critics complained that Maher should have faced a court-martial, not an administrative hearing.

"Yes, this was a heavy price to pay, but much lower-ranking people would have gone to court-martial for such an offense, and they could have lost everything," said Tod Ensign, director of Citizen Soldier, a nonprofit advocacy group for soldiers.

Maher, who is married, escaped a court-martial and possible prison sentence for several reasons, an army official said. The women in the case wanted to avoid a trial, the official said, and there was a question of the statute of limitations. Moreover, officials said, the general did not contest the investigation or the proceedings.

Maher's adulterous affairs began in 1991 and did not end until 1998, said Army officials who declined to provide any more details. During that time he rose from colonel to major general, in positions including assistant chief of staff for operations and plans at Fort Lewis, Wash., and commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division (Light) at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.

He was vice director of operations on the staff of the Joint Chiefs when he learned in February that he was under investigation for sexual harassment. He was then sent to Fort Gillem, in Forest Park, Ga., where the commander, Lt. Gen. John Riggs, oversaw his hearing.

Through his lawyer, Maher said he would not comment on the case. Maher will retire within the month, Army officials said.