Peter Pringle's America: A wife's rotten to the corps

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SO THE US marines have a recruitment problem. General Carl Mundy, the marine corps commandant, says his riflemen are marrying too early and can't concentrate on war when their minds are burdened with family upsets. Marriage for the trooper is out of bounds, the general decreed last week.

His order followed the Pentagon's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy for homosexuals and prompted much ridicule off the barrack square. 'If soldiers are not allowed to be homosexuals and not allowed to be married, what are they supposed to do, take cold showers?' asked Senator Pat Schroeder, the Colorado Democrat who is the leading lady on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a staunch protector of citizen privacy.

Worse still, General Mundy apparently failed to consult his Commander-in-Chief, President Clinton, who was astounded that anyone could think of the marriage ban, let alone order it. The President's divorced Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, immediately reversed the order, leaving poor General Mundy with what he calls a 'readiness' problem: riflemen unfit for the front. Mr Aspin has promised to review the issue, but he is unlikely to find the generals willing to co-operate.

Bernard Trainor, a retired marine lieutenant-general who directs the national security programme at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, was the first to come to General Mundy's aid. According to Mr Trainor, married riflemen have been a headache for platoon leaders since the US army became an all-volunteer force in 1973 and discipline loosened in order to attract recruits. He says legions of chaplains have spent the better part of their ministry adjudicating marriage disputes between teenage couples, to the detriment of their larger flock.

Even so, banning marriages for riflemen will not solve anything. Such a move invites legal challenges and creates political and social divisions, and not necessarily the stable fighting force General Mundy is seeking.

At present, 40 per cent of marines in their first tour of duty are married. In our current unstable world the troopers are called out to trouble spots so often that only 10 per cent of those married recruits re-enlist.

General Mundy, being of the old school in which soldiers had to ask permission of their commanding officers before they got married, thought he had the answer. Marriage among recruits would be phased out. Starting in October no more than 4 per cent of recruits could be married, then next year 2 per cent and none in 1995. Oddly, the order would have meant that the marines could accept homosexual recruits, as long as they were quiet about their sexuality, but not married heterosexuals.

General Mundy's unmarried marine corps conjures up images of a force of fearsome fighters like the French foreign legion, made up of men who joined up to escape the responsibilities of the real world, had criminal records or were avoiding their wives. This may have been what General Mundy in mind, but it is hardly desirable in a modern fighting force where brain to work computerised equipment is often a higher priority than brawn to skewer the enemy with a bayonet. Facing a reduced budget, General Mundy undoubtedly also saw the marriage ban as a budget measure: single soldiers cost less.

Ban or no ban, General Mundy has decreed that all marines who are already married must attend 'marriage awareness training', in which they would benefit from advice from older marriage-hardened marines about the problems of family life in the military.

Typical scenes loom into view. 'Now, trooper, you say you are in love and you want to get married, right? Love is for sissies, trooper. That's the first thing I learnt. If you think boot camp was bad, try family life. Trooper let me tell you something. I was at the Imjin River, I was at Khe San, I came ashore at Mogadishu only the other day. None of this compares with my wife's temper tantrums about my being away and not earning enough.

'Give it up, trooper, or you won't be able to think straight, and when you can't think straight you can't shoot straight. And you'll be in a body bag before Christmas and I'll be writing to your mother. Instead, let me help with the Dear Joan letter, forget love and and let's move out. On the double.'

General Mundy appears to have got the idea of the marriage ban from his deputy, General Walter Boomer. In an article in a military journal in 1990, General Boomer wrote of the toll on marines of moving about the world. But he was not advocating a complete ban. 'To suggest that we should think about requiring marines to attain a certain rank before marrying brings an outcry from many quarters, but the idea shouldn't be discounted too quickly,' he said.

If the generals succeed in forcing through any restrictions on marriage, the question will then be, which ranks can marry? Does General Boomer mean a marine should be at least a sergeant or a young captain before going to the altar? This hardly guarantees a stable marriage, and is unenforceable, of course.

In his review of the issue, Mr Aspin could do worse than to contemplate the four stages of man commonly accepted by the highland Mayans in Guatemala: the boy, the warrior, the community man and the echo man. Warriors were, well, just warriors, the community man was married, settled down and concerned about community values, and the echo man was the wise village elder.

The Mayans recognised that different males moved at a different pace from one stage to the other. The legions of marine chaplains could assess where new recruits are on this male scale and the recruiting office could have a notice saying, 'Warriors, this way, community men that way.' General Mundy could take his pick.