Wanted: Young Fighters Without Families


August 17, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- You have to give them stars for consistency. The military regularly manages to resolve matters of human relationships with the delicacy, the finesse, the sheer sensitivity of an assault vehicle on enemy terrain.

This time, the Marine Corps looked deeply into the problems of young military marriages and came up with a family policy: No Family. Or at least no marriage.

The edict came down from Marine Corps Commandant Carl Mundy that as of 1995, the Marines would be looking for a few good singles. They would stop recruiting married civilians. No husbands or wives need apply. Moreover, if marines on their first tour of duty wanted to marry they would have to consult with their commanding officers for a dose of discouragement.

What a simple solution to a complex situation. It harks back to the old saying that if the military wanted you to have a family they would have issued you one.

It was also evidence that the Marine Corps has learned astoundingly little from the flap over gays in the military. Imagine, if you will, a policy that forbids recruiters from asking about sexual orientation but forces them to ask about marital status.

Imagine a policy that accepts closeted gays and rejects openly marrieds. A policy for young soldiers that forbids homosexual sex and discourages married sex, leaving open the possibilities of celibacy, non-marital relations or in Rep. Pat Schroeder's phrase, ''cold showers.''

Not surprisingly it turned out that General Mundy had some relationship problems of his own. Not with his wife whom, by the way, he married before he joined the Marine Corps at 22 years old. His problems were with Defense Secretary Les Aspin. General Mundy had apparently neglected to share his, uh, feelings with Mr. Aspin. Who apparently freaked out.

(Dear General Mundy: Have you tried therapy? Can this professional marriage be saved? Are you suffering from that old familiar lament of troubled couples: a breakdown of communications?)

Within hours of hearing about the singles order, Mr. Aspin overruled it. But a Pentagon spokesman said only that the secretary hadn't had a chance to ''consider'' it.

What's really worth considering is the reasoning behind the no-family policy. As a commandant, General Mundy is not all that different from CEOs or branch managers who sometimes wish they could rid themselves of the messy human problem of family attachments. Or should I say, encumbrances.

General Mundy's stated concerns were about ''readiness.'' He said that military life was tough on marriage and shaky marriages were tough on military life. Only 10 percent of married marines re-enlisted, he lamented. The pressures of the job, such as long separations, strained families and those strains meant troubled soldiers.

''Eventually,'' he wrote, ''the weight of family-related problems can disrupt the individual's concentration level, result in decreased performance and require command attention.''

In short, families are nothing but potential distractions from the job at hand. They are time-consuming, energy-consuming sources of anxiety that can lower productivity and divide attention.

Not to mention that families also cost money. They tend to occupy houses, use medical plans, eat something besides C rations and nibble the budget.

There are company heads as well as commandants who wish for a staff of unattached workers they could deploy at a moment's notice to Akron as well as Mogadishu. There are fresh recruits in every line of work who are warned that it's better to have a one-track mind than a mommy-track schedule.

In a competitive, downsizing, cost-cutting world, we are at one of those crossroads. In one direction is a more balanced life; in the other is a room at the top that's a bachelor pad. In one direction is a workplace struggling to become family friendly. In the other is a workplace looking for employees who are -- or will act as if they are -- family-free.

In the past decades, there's been a move in the volunteer armed services to strengthen troops and their marriages. For one not-so-shining moment, the Marines sent out a different message that said no couples need apply.

They wanted young fighters without families. They forgot that families are worth fighting for.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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