By Col. Butch Bracknell, USMC (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist
The Washington Post's obituary following the passing of General Carl E. Mundy, Jr., the 30th commandant of the Marine Corps, could have benefited from some balance, perspective, and a dose of journalistic ethics. The Post can even make an obituary sensational. Writer Matt Schudel replows old dirt by resurfacing controversies surrounding certain of General Mundy's public statements. General Mundy, as a public figure, was of course not immune from criticism, and this writer would even wager that, if asked, General Mundy would want a do-over for certain public stances he took as commandant. Even so, Schudel's research appears to have been Wikipedia deep, as a mere cursory examination of the historical record might have led him also to note monumental successes on General Mundy's watch.
Rather than dance on the grave of an American icon, Schudel might have considered writing a more balanced account of this gentleman-patriot's life. Over the history of the Corps, some commandants have been divisive figures, but General Mundy is held in virtually universal high regard. A warrior who fought in Vietnam at Khe Sanh and Con Thien, with a gentleman's manner, General Mundy was revered by enlisted Marines, officers, and his general officers. This author remembers seeing him at Camp Lejeune in June 2012 at 0530 in the morning as he visited the base to attend the high school graduation of one of his granddaughters (everyone knows when a commandant is aboard your base) -- as trim as when on active duty, impeccably dressed in pressed khakis, a collared golf shirt, clean-shaven with his hair perfectly combed, returning from a vigorous morning walk. This was quintessential Mundy -- the epitome of the image that Marine officers work to project through appearance, carriage, and demeanor.
Schudel's portrait of this deeply respected Marine leader was inappropriately one-sided. It painted him with tones of bigotry, reciting his out-of-context comments regarding African-American Marines's military skills without noting the enormous progress in the Corps recruiting and retaining minority officers during his watch. He recited in detail the controversy surrounding his comments on proposing to limit Marines's right to marry until reaching the rank of sergeant and women in combat, hinting at an anachronism, out of touch with modern times. Schudel failed to touch General Mundy's deft guiding of the Corps through force reductions that saw the Corps emerge from Desert Storm relatively healthier than the other forces.
Foreseeing the transition of conflict from state-on-state battles to irregular warfare against shape-changing, unknown, and unpredictable state and non-state actors, often in the global littorals, General Mundy steered the Corps in a direction that would pay dividends for years to come. His tenure as a three- and four-star general included manning, training, and equipping Marines to fight as a member of the joint team that demolished the Iraqi Army in Desert Storm, provided desperately-needed humanitarian relief in Somalia, accomplished the perfectly-executed rescue of Air Force Captain Scott O'Grady in Bosnia, and saved thousands of Kurdish lives in Operation Provide Comfort. As America sought to reap an elusive "peace dividend" with shrinking defense budgets and uncertain force structure, he guided the Corps through a period of reorganization with a premium on adequate force levels and readiness that would yield dividends in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11.
General Mundy was the perfect commandant to follow General Al Gray. General Gray successfully refocused the Marine Corps on its warrior ethos, and General Mundy carried the baton forward to even greater levels of maturity, dignity, and professionalism. Finally, General Mundy's dedication to the men and women of the armed forces transcended his tenure as commandant, as he presided over the USO and the Marine Corps University Foundation in retirement. Schudel could have learned all these facts about General Mundy's successes as a general officer and as the 30th commandant by picking up a phone and calling Headquarters, Marine Corps, or any Marine over the age of 35. Instead, in America's paper of record, he elected to rely on a handful of tired old saws about this fine American, with nary a nod toward his true excellence in the art of generalship.
Articles like this deepen the rift between America's warrior class and the self-styled Washington elite. Marines are a tribe, one that endures valid, even-handed criticism with a cheerful heart, so long as it is fair and objective. Attacking an icon like General Mundy by surfacing the controversies of his tenure without placing them in the context of his enormous strategic successes, on the other hand, raises our hackles and reinforces the perhaps unwise and unhealthy perception of a "we/they" split . "We" are the band of brothers, a fraternity forged in the fire of combat, sacrifice, and service. "They" are Washington's comfortable privileged class -- on Capitol Hill, in the administration, in the ivory tower of the academy, and in the media. Most students of wholesome civil-military relations know well that the split should not, and cannot, be so stark, and that healthy civil-military relations require outreach and genuine understandings from both sides. Yet offensive articles such as Schudel's confirm some Marines's worst suspicions: Rather than take the time to author a fair retrospective of General Mundy, including his monumental successes and highly-visible gaffes, the Washington media would rather simply focus on the latter, at the expense of a fair representation of his achievements.
The Corps does not expect the media the handle its legacy with kid gloves. We expect to be held accountable to the American people through several mechanisms -- civilian control by the president and secretary of defense, congressional oversight, and the occasionally harsh light of public scrutiny. We only demand that it be fair, and that any institutional and individual failures be placed in proper context. Matt Schudel felt no such need to be fair to General Mundy's legacy. This author cannot speak for all Marines, but this Marine will never forget it.
Butch Bracknell is a retired career Marine officer and member of the Truman National Security Project's Defense Council.