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Sunday, November 28, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Commandant Of Marine Corps Doesn't Mince Words -- Mundy's Comments: Wonderfully Blunt Or Just Insensitive?

Seattle Times News Services: Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - Gen. Carl Mundy Jr., the commandant of the Marine Corps, possesses a peculiar brand of candor.

What did he learn about women in combat during the Persian Gulf War? "We learned a lot," the Marine said in July. "We learned that mascara running is not necessarily an incapacitating event."

With his crewcut and ramrod bearing, Mundy appears the model Marine, except for what associates call one glaring flaw: a "tin ear" for sensitivity.

As a result, Mundy has been dressed down in recent months for trying to derail President Clinton's plan to lift the ban on gays in the military, for trying to ban married recruits from the Marine Corps and for declaring on CBS' "60 Minutes" that minority Marine officers can't swim, shoot or use a compass as well as their white counterparts.

Mundy quickly expressed regret and said he didn't mean to imply that black officers were less capable.

Nevertheless, his civilian superiors in the Pentagon remain upset.

"That was a damned racist statement," a senior aide to Defense Secretary Les Aspin said. "There are no mitigating circumstances."

Even old friends winced. "It was a very unfortunate choice of words," said Sean O'Keefe, President George Bush's last Navy secretary.

Navy Secretary John Dalton has no plans to discipline Mundy but has ordered a "complete review on the recruitment, retention and promotion of minorities," a Pentagon spokesman said.

Most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff come and go with little public notice. Not Mundy. Since taking over as the Marine Corps' 30th commandant in July 1991, Mundy has gone public - sometimes embarrassingly so - with his mission to strengthen the corps and preserve its special place in the American military.

That makes Mundy a hero among Marines. So what if he's blunt, they say. They believe he's right.

"Marines don't measure what they say against the political correctness yardstick," said Thomas Draude, a recently retired one-star Marine general. "We deal in truth, in the lack of guile, and that sometimes will be perceived as insensitive."

Marines consider themselves special, members of the military's most elite force.

The corps also is more conservative than the other services and is steeped in tradition - a combination that complicates efforts to reshape and diversify to meet the needs of a post-Cold War world.

"The Marines suffer from a macho complex," O'Keefe said. "Mundy and an awful lot of the senior guys have a generational problem - they're not dragging their heels on it, but they're not warmly embracing these changes, either."

Mundy began his career in 1957 as a second lieutenant and served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. Before becoming commandant, he oversaw the Marine's Atlantic forces.

Rocking the boat in public

Mundy's boat-rocking tendencies first surfaced last year, when he was the only service chief to challenge the Bush administration's planned troop cuts.

And Mundy persuaded Clinton and Congress to trim only 2,000 Marines. It was, by far, the smallest proportional cut suffered by any service.

Of all the service chiefs, Mundy was most opposed to relaxing the ban on gays in the military. Shortly before Clinton took office, he duplicated an anti-gay videotape and circulated it among his fellow chiefs. He denied sending the tape to Capitol Hill, where it also showed up.

In large part because of pressure from the Joint Chiefs, Clinton retreated from his pledge to lift the ban and instead, settled for a policy that allows gays to serve so long as they don't openly express their sexuality.

But Mundy's luck ran out in August, when he issued an order to bar married people from enlisting in the Marines. He claimed the low pay and extensive time away from home put too much stress on the family lives of young Marines.

The policy rocked the Pentagon and "astounded" Clinton. Hours after learning about it from news reports, Aspin ordered the policy scrapped. Mundy later admitted he had "kicked this one into the grandstand" by not first clearing the policy with his bosses.

Mundy is refusing all interview requests, and aides blame distorted reporting for a perception that Mundy is out of control.

In that "60 Minutes" episode, the general was pressed to explain why so few blacks have been promoted to officer ranks. "In the military skills, we find that the minority officers do not shoot as well as the nonminorities," he said. "They don't swim as well. And when you give them a compass and send them across the terrain at night . . . they don't do as well at that sort of thing."

Telephone lines have been sizzling among the generals and other officers since those comments were aired Oct. 31.

Some of the black generals want action taken against Mundy; others want a public repudiation of Mundy's remarks by Aspin or Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Some see an opportunity

Still others view the incident as a way to highlight and correct continuing racial inequities in the military services.

At the least, regardless of whether Mundy intended to disparage minorities or whether he was a victim of selective editing by "60 Minutes," the remarks were seen as a setback to the ongoing equal-opportunity efforts of the military services, which long have been viewed as institutions where minorities could advance on ability.

"You work down in the trenches to eliminate this sort of thing," said an active-duty black Army general who requested anonymity. "But it doesn't take much to set you back. We don't need to have slaps in the face that keep us from moving forward."

Another black Army general said: "So what if initially you don't swim as fast as the other guys because your backgrounds are considerably different? I grew up in the projects in a family of 12 kids. I worked three jobs in the summer. I had no time to go swimming."

Scores reflect discrepancies

The corps has recently released figures showing small differences between black Marines and all Marine officers when measured in 19 military skills.

In rifle marksmanship, for example, on a scale of 100 points, blacks scored four points lower than the group as a whole. With pistols, blacks averaged 3.5 points less. In swimming, they scored 7.5 points lower. In navigation, blacks averaged four points less than the class as a whole.

But on the double obstacle course exam, blacks outperformed the group, scoring 3.5 points higher. And in the communications exam, blacks scored 2 points higher than the group.

The test scores show the disparities existed at least as early as 1983, when Mundy headed the Marine's personnel-procurement office. Yet, nothing has been done to improve training programs.

Recently, at a ceremony honoring the corps' 218th birthday, Mundy said: "My words on another occasion have given the impression that I believe that some Marines, because of their color, are not as capable as others. Those were not the thoughts in my mind, nor are they or have they ever been, the thoughts of my heart."

Pentagon officials, meanwhile, said they hope Mundy's renewed efforts to rid the corps of bias will keep him busy for awhile.

"We hope he has nothing else to say," the senior Pentagon official said.

"And we hope it stays that way through the rest of his term," slated to end in June 1995.

Material from The Milwaukee Journal was added to this report.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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