IF there is any ambivalence about the United States role in Operation Restore Hope, it is hard to detect among the 16,000 marines being deployed from this base to Somalia over the next several days.
Rushing in and out of the base "PX" (Post Exchange) in desert fatigues or plopping into the barber chair for a last, buzz haircut, marines here are upbeat and willing to go, almost to a man - despite having to sacrifice a holiday season at home.
Less sanguine are several of the wives attending special briefings to learn about insurance matters, wills, and the loss of a food allowance they received while their husbands were stationed at Camp Pendleton. Unlike the Persian Gulf war, conditions in Somalia will preclude contact by telephone or mail.
"This is a great opportunity for the US to do something with its military besides using its force for aggression," says Maj. Robert Barrow, a 13-year Marine veteran who missed Christmas at home two years ago during Operation Desert Storm. "There is probably no better interpretation of the spirit of Christmas than to help a starving nation."
But Bonnie Harman, wife of Sgt. William Harman, who is being deployed in the First Marine Expeditionary Force, is considerably less gung-ho. "I feel like these people have been starving for a long time so why do we wait until Christmas to take husbands from their families?" she asks.
Echoing the concerns of several spouses here, Mrs. Harman says she is less concerned about the dangers her husband will face from organized resistance than from undisciplined youths with guns or from disease.
"I also feel that the money we are spending to help others might better be used to eradicate our own [hunger problem] or cure the American homeless problem," she says.
While the mission to Somalia has been justified on humanitarian grounds, critics have argued that the US has no legitimate security interests in East Africa. Critics also argue that the Somali famine is not a threat to world peace. But such observations pass here as arcane subtleties of politics.
"I tell you what, none of that stuff occurs to me," says Maj. Steve Little, who will be leaving his wife and two boys in Stafford, Va., hoping to return by his wedding anniversary on Feb. 8. "I turn on the television and see pictures of starving kids. I see a need. That is all there is to it."
For the most part, marines here say their mission is both understandable and clear-cut, with more obvious moral dimensions than those at other world trouble spots.
"It's much easier to go into something that the public is definitely behind," says Sergeant Harman, citing polls showing that more than 60 percent of Americans back the operation. "Vietnam was abstract and confusing to people. The Persian Gulf was popular, but there was always the tinge that we were just doing it to protect our oil."
Harman, a six-year veteran, also says the use of marines in Somalia signals a further step in a change of emphasis for the post-cold-war US armed forces. Live media coverage of soldiers rushing ashore for humanitarian instead of military reasons bodes well for building new attitudes among future generations of soldiers, he says.
"People need to see that the military is getting more and more into helping people and less into defending," Harman says. "It's a good sign."
The mission to Somalia will require marines to take with them every amenity, from lights to latrines. Besides protecting food supplies in towns and villages, soldiers will be opening relief lines across stark, parched desert landscapes. Several marines here say they are not only prepared for such contingencies, but welcome them. "That's why I got into the Marines," says Cpl. Christopher Taylor of the First Marine Division. "I can't wait to get going."
Officers here are also confident the marines will be able to handle Somalia's gun-toting teenagers and competing warlords. "We are the general practitioners of the armed forces," Major Barrow says. "People need to understand we are neither Gomer Pyles nor Rambos - we are something in between, trained for everything from peacekeeping to all-out combat."