Mundy was wrong -- and right

August 16, 1993

Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr., the Marine Corps commandant, said he "blind-sided" President Clinton and Secretary of Defense Les Aspin by not telling them in advance that he wanted to ban recruiting of married youths. He sure did, and his apology was proper. Technically, the commandant has the authority to issue such orders on his own, but wise senior military officers know that civilian decision-making is especially important on politically charged issues. And as the flap over homosexual policy showed, an issue that involves private sexual and affectionate conduct and status is about as political as it gets.

Having said that, we must say this: General Mundy is absolutely right about the need to reduce the number -- already tiny, by the way -- of very young married junior enlisted personnel in the corps. It is not a good environment for youthful newlyweds. It is one that is bad for the couple's well-being, and the result is bad for the corps' mission. A very high percentage of such marriages fail, with all the heartbreak and personal sorrow that entails.

This can affect the distracted Marine's unit as well. Beverly Byron, the former Maryland member of Congress who headed the House Armed Service subcommittee on personnel matters, says that company commanders used to tell her that they had to spend valuable time dealing with the impact on individuals and on their units of marriages falling apart under the strains of Marine life. Marine life can be quite a hardship for a couple, with much time spent apart. Even when marriages don't fail as a result, the couple often decides the Marine Corps is no place for them after one tour. Low re-enlistment rates are not in the best interest of any military service.

A lot of the criticism and ridicule General Mundy has received seems motivated by generalized dislike of all things military. And the reaction of the civilian leadership in the Pentagon and White House seems motivated as much by the need to pacify that public opinion as by a sober assessment of the proposed policy change itself.

The controversy over this issue, like the controversy over the policy on gays, is a reminder that a lot of hard decisions will have to be made about recruiting in the years ahead for a downsizing military -- one in which competition for slots will be intense. It would be in everybody's best interest, and the nation's, if the military brass can be as politically sensitive as General Mundy was not -- and if the political leaders can be as practical as General Mundy was.

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