Marines Confront Racial Bias but Corps Officers Say Political-Correctness Effort May Undermine Ability to Wage War

Article excerpt

SINCE the end of the cold war, the Marine Corps has been transformed from the wet mop in the United States' military closet to its foreign-policy spearhead in Somalia, and now Haiti.

But the Clinton administration's goal to expand opportunities for women, minorities, and homosexuals in the armed forces has put the corps under fire. Some experts warn that too much political correctness might dampen the warrior culture of the Marines and undermine their ability to wage war.

In the last two years, the Marines have opened combat training to women, absorbed the "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" policy on homosexuals, and revised their training manual to prohibit officers from making statements that show "racial, gender, or ethnic prejudice, or bias."

"The trade-off between political correctness and military effectiveness has yet to be fully analyzed," says Marty Binkin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Because of its combat orientation, Mr. Binkin argues, the Marine Corps is more sensitive to demographic tinkering in its ranks - an assessment Marine commanders agree with.

"We do windows, we do floors, we do what you want done," says Gen. Thomas Wilkerson, assistant deputy chief of staff for the Marine Corps. "Maybe we're a little bit conservative ... but we provide something the nation is looking for."

General Wilkerson says that although the Marines are making progress in the advancement of women and minorities, their crowded docket prevents them from tackling every "quality of life" issue.

Yet some evidence suggests that the Marine Corps culture is prejudiced in favor of white males. Current Defense Department statistics show that only 4 percent of Marines are women, compared to a militarywide figure of 12 percent, and only 11 percent of Marine officers are minorities, again the lowest percentage for all the services.

In 1989, the Marines dismissed Bruce Yamashita, a Japanese-American, from its Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Quantico, Va., for what they termed "leadership failure."

Mr. Yamashita says he was ousted because he protested the racial taunts and jeers he was subjected to during training.

Reviewing the case early this year, Navy Secretary John Dalton determined that Yamashita's ouster had been driven by racial discrimination.

The Marine Corps has always had the attitude of "let us do it our own way," says Yamashita, a Washington lawyer. "But the way the Corps does things now doesn't allow room for basic equal opportunity, basic diversity, and tolerance."

In a 1992 internal review, the Marines discovered that, indeed, minorities drop out of OCS at higher rates than whites. Appearing on CBS's "60 Minutes," Marine Commandant Gen. Carl Mundy fueled criticism by stating that minority officers do not perform in the field as well as their white counterparts. …