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.
The Marines maintain that their training methods are the most egalitarian of all the armed services. In boot camp, every Marine is trained as a rifleman and subjected to the same physical and mental duress.
Created in 1775 for amphibious landings to secure beachheads, the Marines have had their role widened in 1987 to include hostage rescue, disaster relief, and humanitarian intervention.
But in the face of their expanded role, Marine leaders have, in some cases, braced against demographic changes. Last summer, Commandant Mundy announced that the Marines would limit the number of married recruits accepted annually to 4 percent.
After Secretary of Defense Les Aspin revoked the order, Mundy apologized for failing to realize the political sensitivity of such a move. Yet Marine officials maintain that the order was meant to ease what has become the Corps' most pressing morale problem: Nearly 1,500 Marines get divorced or separated in their first year of service, largely because of the length of time they spend in the field, even in peacetime.
Because of these strenuous demands, the Marines take in about 40,000 new recruits every year, maintaining a force of 173,000 whose average age is 19. Officials say youth is a crucial component of combat readiness and willingness to ship out at a moment's notice. But some experts contend that recruiting a young force with the traditional Marine Corps predilection for warfare leads to a host of social problems, such as infidelity and alcohol abuse.
Such behavior has less to do with the Marines and more to do with the nature of young men, says Don Snider, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The current criticism of the Marines is part of a flare-up of ``behavioral tension'' wrought by the Clinton administration, Mr. Snider says.
He adds that too many people unfairly impose civilian norms on soldiers. ``It shouldn't be surprising to anyone that the values of society as a whole do not agree with the values of an organization whose purpose is to fight and kill,'' he says.
Nevertheless, Binkin of Brookings says the Marines attract social problems by advertising themselves as an elite fighting force of ``a few good men'' and promoting the image of Marines as modern-day warriors. ``We don't really know if a macho guy is the best soldier,'' Binkin says. ``You never know until you put somebody in combat.''
But Binkin points out that, for the Marines, the nature of combat itself is changing. In Somalia, he says, the humanitarian focus of the mission blurred the rules of engagement, and the typical Marine goal of ``drawing a line in the sand'' was not applicable. To succeed in the era of limited wars, he says, new training methods and perhaps a new brand of Marine may be in order.