Commandant works to shine Marines' tarnished fighting image. Corps's Al Gray wages war on peacetime careerism

Marine Corps Commandant Al Gray faces an age-old dilemma: how to keep the bayonet from rusting as peacetime military forces drift toward careerism and the comforts of home. With spouses, mortgages, and school-age children to think about, the tendency to settle down, forget bayonets, and embrace paychecks becomes very strong for the 198,000 marines, who support 210,000 dependents.

For the Romans and Ottoman Turks, who also had trouble maintaining combat-readiness, the answer was to wall off the troops in a self-contained military environment and ethos. But that won't work today, and whether General Gray can transform the Corps is uncertain.

He's trying hard, and in the six months since he took over from Gen. P.X. Kelley he's at least gotten people's attention. During a tour last month of Marine facilities in Georgia, Gray talked about his plans.

Gray jokes indignantly about marines who have been in Washington long enough to deserve inclusion in the tourist tours.

``They're going to move - and starting from the top,'' he warns. Any officer who the computer says has been at one base for more than three years will be reassigned, unless there are compelling personal or family reasons.

He denounces ``homesteaders,'' those marines who hang on for years at a post; a few even moonlight in the civilian economy.

``A marine teaching night school might be acceptable,'' says Mark Cancian, a former Marine officer now at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. ``But selling real estate to fellow marines - as has happened - is going too far. The [Marine Corps] Gazette once mentioned a guy who was selling Amway products from his office.''

He has announced that he will root out careerism, a problem in peacetime when promotion is slow and competition fierce. Lobbying for choice posts, he says, must cease - or else.

Gray's deeper purpose is to change outlook and self-image of the Corps, spurring marines to see themselves as fighters rather than as technical specialists.

He is concerned that the work of marines has become too civilianized. High-tech weapons and equipment require highly skilled operators and technicians.

A specialist in optics or video training films may never see a bayonet once he or she leaves boot camp. Neither will the tens of thousands of marines in administrative and supply posts.

As a result, Gray is rejuvenating of the School of Infantry. All marines - women included - will go there after boot camp for about two months of small unit combat training with infantry weapons. ``Two young marines told me they'd never thrown a live grenade,'' Gray says. ``We have to change that.''

But increased training is expensive - both in actual cost and because it draws down the number of active-duty units. One of Gray's challenges is to strike a balance between ready-to-go troops and those in the training cycle.

With tighter budgets predicted over the next several years, Gray implied that cuts in hardware and personnel would not impare his plans to rebuild the Corps's fighting power.

``We don't need to be any bigger,'' he says. ``One of our fortes is our size. The country doesn't need two armies.''

Gray, a ``mustang'' who rose from the ranks without a university degree, has served but little in Washington. He has spoken about moving some Marine Corps offices to Quantico, Va., 40 miles away. His image is populist: unpretentious, blunt-spoken, demanding but affectionate toward the men and women in the ranks.

Marine audiences roar enthusiastically at his speeches, and ask searching questions: Can he strengthen their fighting power? How successfully he shifts emphasis from high-tech hardware to the soldiers at the bayonet's point will give the answer.

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