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Remembering General Mundy
The former commandant of the Marine Corps embodied courage — intellectual and physical.

Marine Corps General Carl Mundy (U.S. Marine Corps)

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Mackubin Thomas Owens

The country has lost two fine leaders and men of principle in recent days: former secretary of defense James Schlesinger, and former commandant of the Marine Corps General Carl Mundy. Bing West has eulogized the former for NRO. Please permit me to do the same for the latter.

I should note that I knew General Mundy fairly well. Indeed, we were on a first-name basis: He called me “Mac” and I called him “General.”

He served as Marine commandant at a particularly difficult time. First, the Cold War had ended and part of an alleged “peace dividend” involved substantial reductions in the force structure of all the services. General Mundy oversaw a reduction of the Marine Corps from 194,000 troops to 170,000. But more important, his time as commandant was also a period when social pressure was brought to bear on the military services. General Mundy stood against much of that pressure as a matter of principle and was widely criticized for articulating his views.

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He opposed the idea of opening the combat arms of the armed forces to women. Unlike many of today’s generals and admirals, who either run for the high grass or parrot the company line on women in the infantry and special operations (or both), General Mundy confronted the issue in a forthright way.

I happened to be in attendance when he addressed a meeting of the Woman Officers Professional Association (WOPA) shortly after becoming commandant. Always the courtly and genteel southern gentleman, General Mundy was nonetheless firm in stating his opposition, not to women in the military but to opening combat roles for women. His opposition was based on considerations of military effectiveness, but he also took recourse to chivalry, asking, “Do we want to have women, who are, after all, the mothers of civilization, do that? I don’t.”

As one would expect, his views, especially his comments linking women to motherhood, were not appreciated by the audience members. Although I expected them to oppose him on this, I was dumbstruck by the disrespect these presumably “professional” officers demonstrated during this meeting.

General Mundy was also roundly criticized for his comments to 60 Minutes in 1993 regarding the low number of minority officers in the Marine Corps. His observations were no doubt artless (and he later apologized for giving offense), but they reflected the reality at the time: African-American officer candidates did indeed underperform on the rifle range and during land navigation, especially at night, and tended, probably for cultural reasons, not to be good swimmers. But as the critics carped about the “insensitivity” of his comments, General Mundy initiated the steps to improve the performance of minority officer candidates.

Ironically, General Mundy got into the hottest water when, in the late summer of 1993, he directed the Marine Corps to stop recruiting married men beginning in 1995. According to news reports, President Clinton was “astounded” by the decision and Secretary of Defense Les Aspin quickly reversed General Mundy’s directive.

Representative Pat Schroeder (D., Colo.) inadvertently honored General Mundy (and who wouldn’t be honored by being denounced by the odious Ms. Schroeder?) by asking, “Do we need to get this man leave until he regains his senses?” Her snide remarks notwithstanding, General Mundy was addressing a real problem of readiness and retention. And his judgment was supported by an important precedent: At the time, cadets and midshipmen at the service academies could not be married upon accession and were required to remain unmarried until they graduated and were commissioned. That policy continues.

General Mundy is often portrayed as, in the words of the Washington Post’s obituary, “an aging leatherneck out of touch with changing times.” This is no doubt true, if one believes that virtue is somehow out of date.

Let us hope that “changing times” have not eroded such virtues as honor, firm adherence to principle, and courage, both physical and intellectual — virtues that General Mundy possessed in spades. Semper Fi, General, and RIP.

— Mackubin Thomas Owens, a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam, is professor of national security at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport and editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).



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