Op-Eds by Jim

The Military Is Not A Social Program

August 18, 1993
by James Webb, The New York Times

Our society is becoming ever more divided between people of thought and people of action. Thus, it is not surprising that a wide array of politicians and commentators found the order by the Marine Corps Commandant that would have limited enlistments to unmarried recruits an object of easy derision.

Administration officials concede that Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr. possesses the authority to change Marine recruitment policy without their approval. Nonetheless, the order was quickly rescinded, and he was subjected to a public dressing-down for having exercised his judgment without their concurrence.

The general may, indeed, have committed a procedural error. But the reaction to his order and the inability of those in political and media power to clearly see the problem he is trying to address give us a nice allegory of why our national leadership has become so derailed and unrespected.

President Clinton, who has never held a non-bureaucratic or even a private-sector job and is well-remembered for his youthful letter sympathizing with those who “loathed” the military, was said to be astonished at General Mundy’s decision. According to The New York Times, the plan flew in the face of Mr. Clinton’s “commitment to have the military reflect society at large.”

Representative Pat Schroeder, who claims military expertise from having gone to Armed Services Committee meetings for two decades, during which she has tried to civilianize the military and cut billions of dollars annually from its operating budget, dismissed General Mundy as a cultural Neanderthal. With an arrogance that has become her imprimatur, she wondered whether he had “taken leave of his senses” and pointed out that “even the Pope allows his Swiss Guards to be married.” “Marines have always been the least family-friendly,” she said, “and I think we now see that policy in action.”

The New York Times’s front-page coverage said that General Mundy’s plan involved “constitutional questions of discrimination and privacy.” The Washington Post termed him a “zealous steward of tradition in what is by far the most conservative and insular of the military services.”

From a chorus of people who have never handled an operating budget or been responsible for troops sent in harm’s way comes an unspoken litany: We are smarter than you. General Mundy could have a field day responding to their comments. For starters:

* How far does Mr. Clinton wish to go in order to have a military that “reflects society at large”? Should we lower its educational standards, since the military’s percentage of high school graduates is higher than society’s? Should we reduce opportunities for minorities, since they are more prevalent in the military than in society? Should Yale lawyers and Rhodes scholars serve in the same percentages as they exist in society?

* How often does Ms. Schroeder think the Swiss Guards travel thousands of miles from their wives for a year at a time? And since when have they required the training, weapons and logistics for heavy combat?

* When do phrases like “least family-friendly” and “most conservative and insular” simply mask an arrogance toward an institution that, beyond cavil, is the least problem-filled and most combat-ready military service our country has ever fielded?

The country and the other military services should listen to General Mundy. He is not harking to the past but informing us of the realities of the future. The greatest challenge as our military weans itself from its NATO role and shapes its forces for the future will be to build and sustain a highly maneuverable and cost-effective fighting force. This will require planners to go against the grain of many recruitment policies that gave us the all-volunteer military.

The all-volunteer system has drawn heavily on young enlistees who are married or wish to marry, because of remarkable family benefits that include free medical care, housing, day care, counseling services, commissary and PX privileges and generous early retirement.

Predictably, the percentage of young marrieds ballooned as these benefits improved. Although only 14 percent of Army soldiers holding the rank of E-5 were married in 1971, by 1986 that percentage was 73 percent. Today, 40 percent of Marines on their first enlistment are married, and those marriages are suffering a 40 percent divorce rate.

During my time in the Pentagon, the Army’s No. 1 budget priority was its quality-of-life programs, which cost more than $6 billion a year. Even in the 1980’s, this ever-increasing spending caused concern among planners, since payments to keep the troops happy and encourage retention took money away from go-to-war budget areas related to mobilization, combat medical readiness and logistics.

But military leaders scarred from the disciplinary nightmare of the final days of conscription, as well as the leaders of our NATO allies, were comfortable with the greater percentage of marrieds. They were a more contented force; they fit well with the garrison mentality of NATO forces, causing less problems off-base and pumping more money into foreign economies.

But as our NATO bases are being shut down, these circumstances are changing. With a smaller force structure and wider range of potential crisis areas, the Army and tactical Air Force will certainly experience more unscheduled deployments, accompanied by greater family turbulence.

The Navy and Marine Corps, with its forces continually deployed worldwide without families, began feeling the magnitude of problems associated with young marrieds before the Army and Air Force.

For decades, in peace and war, a junior enlisted man or officer in the sea services has been away from home six months each year on average. As these services are cut back further — without any reduction in the worldwide commitments demanded of them — an even harsher operational schedule and greater family separation can be expected.

If a service chief is given less money and fewer people to perform essentially the same tasks, how can he best meet his requirements? If offered the choice between two people of equal talent, one of which needs only a bunk while the other requires full family benefits, including counseling when a teen-age marriage goes sour, which should he choose?

To put it another way, if one is given the awesome task of providing the best defense a specific sum can buy, should he be faulted for wanting to put the money into troops and weapons rather than into dependents and day care centers?

Perhaps a complete ban on married enlistees is overkill. But a Commandant who takes his stewardship seriously — and politicians and commentators whose true focus is effective national defense — would ask that this issue be thoroughly examined as a matter of fiscal and practical leadership.