As a result, Mundy has been dressed down in recent months for trying to derail President Clinton's plan to lift the ban on gays in the military, for trying to ban married recruits from the Marine Corps and for declaring on CBS' 60 Minutes that minority Marine officers can't swim, shoot or use a compass as well as their white counterparts.
Mundy quickly expressed regret and said he didn't mean to imply that black officers were less capable.
Nevertheless, his civilian superiors in the Pentagon remain upset.
"That was a damn racist statement," a senior aide to Defense Secretary Les Aspin said. "There are no mitigating circumstances."
Even old friends winced. "It was a very unfortunate choice of words," said Sean O'Keefe, former President George Bush's last Navy secretary.
Most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff come and go with little public notice. Not Mundy. Since taking over as the Marine Corps' 30th commandant in July 1991, Mundy has gone public - sometimes embarrassingly so - with his mission to strengthen the corps and preserve its special place in the American military.
That makes Mundy a hero among Marines. So what if he's blunt, they say. They believe he's right.
"Gays and women won't make the military better," one Marine officer said. ''Married recruits are a problem we need to reduce. And the test scores say what he said they said."
A recently retired one-star Marine general agreed. "Marines don't measure what they say against the political correctness yardstick," Thomas Draude said. "We deal in truth, in the lack of guile, and that sometimes will be perceived as insensitive."
Marines consider themselves special, members of the military's most elite force. Because the corps is smaller than the other services, it can be more selective. It counts many members of Congress among its former ranks.
The corps also is more conservative than the other services, and steeped in tradition - a combination that complicates efforts to reshape and diversify to meet the needs of a post-Cold War world.
"The Marines suffer from a macho complex," O'Keefe said. "Mundy and an awful lot of the senior guys have a generational problem - they're not dragging their heels on it, but they're not warmly embracing these changes, either."
For example, fewer than 1,000 of the nearly 17,000 officers in the Marine Corps are black - half the Army's rate. Only 642 are women - less than a third the Army's rate.
"There's something wrong with the demographics," said Barbara Pope, who oversaw Marine personnel policies during the Bush administration. "There's always been a lot of excuses."
When Aspin opened up combat cockpits to women in April, the Marines were the only service without female candidates ready to go. And when the Marines recently boasted that their first class of equal opportunity advisers had completed training at the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute in Florida, the other services wondered why the Marines were bragging: They've been sending large numbers of students to the school since its creation in 1971.
The Marine tradition dates to 1775, when the corps was created to guard the budding nation's seaborne commerce. The corps' battle streamers highlight some of the nation's most glorious military campaigns: Iwo Jima in World War II, the amphibious landing at Inchon during the Korean conflict, and the liberation of Kuwait City that capped the gulf war.
Part of the Marines' profound sense of self-esteem stems from their military uniqueness: Stationed aboard ships around the globe, they can launch air and ground attacks at a moment's notice, and continue fighting without outside help for a month. They specialize in guerrillalike combat, which helps explain why the Marines were the only service to suffer more casualties in
Vietnam (103,453) than in World War II (90,709).
"The Marine Corps is my life," Mundy said at his 1991 confirmation hearing. "It is the most important institution in the world to me."
Mundy, 58, began his career in 1957 as a second lieutenant, and served in
Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. Before becoming commandant, he oversaw the Marines' Atlantic forces.
Mundy's boat-rocking tendencies first surfaced last year, when he was the only service chief to challenge the Bush administration's planned troop cuts.
He marched to Capitol Hill and told Congress behind closed doors that cutting 20,000 troops from the Marines' current strength of 179,000 would require the corps to curtail its presence in the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and the western Pacific.
"He was the only chief to challenge Bush," said one congressional aide who heard Mundy's arguments.
And Mundy won. He convinced Clinton and Congress to trim only 2,000 Marines. It was, by far, the smallest proportional cut suffered by any service.
Military sociologist Charles Moskos argues that such savvy shows that the perception of Marines as slow-witted warriors is mistaken. "The old joke is that the two toughest years in a Marine's life are the 4th grade," the Northwestern University professor said, "but you really have to watch your wallet when they're around."
For his next battle, Mundy took on the Clinton administration.
Of all the service chiefs, Mundy was most opposed to relaxing the ban on gays in the military. Shortly before Clinton took office, he duplicated an anti-gay videotape and circulated it among his fellow chiefs. He denied sending the tape to Capitol Hill, where it also showed up.
Ultimately, in large part because of pressure from the Joint Chiefs, Clinton retreated from his pledge to lift the ban and instead, settled for a policy that allows gays to serve so long as they don't openly express their sexuality.
Similarly, Mundy prevailed in a long-running war with former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney over the fate of the $25 billion V-22 aircraft program, the tilt-rotor Osprey that takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane. While Cheney repeatedly tried to kill the program because of its cost, Mundy and his congressional allies kept enough dollars flowing into the program until Clinton resurrected it.
But Mundy's luck ran out in August, when he issued an order to bar married people from enlisting in the Marines. He claimed the low pay and extensive time away from home put too much stress on the family lives of young Marines.
The policy rocked the Pentagon and "astounded" Clinton. Hours after learning about it from news reports, Aspin ordered the policy scrapped. Mundy later admitted that he had "kicked this one into the grandstand" by not first clearing the policy with his bosses.
But he didn't back down from his belief that the policy remains a good idea. "The Marine Corps is a family," Mundy said. "We are concerned about their wellness and their quality of life."
Mundy is refusing all interview requests, and aides blame distorted reporting for a perception that Mundy is out of control. "They're painting him as a monster," one said, while acknowledging that the general was guilty of "an unclear use of words" during the 60 Minutes interview.
In that episode, the general was pressed to explain why so few black Marines have been promoted to officer ranks. "In the military skills, we find that the minority officers do not shoot as well as the non-minorities," he said. "They don't swim as well. And when you give them a compass and send them across the terrain at night . . . they don't do as well at that sort of thing."
Earlier this month, Mundy did an about-face at a ceremony honoring the corps' 218th birthday in the shadow of the famed Iwo Jima memorial just across the Potomac River from the capital. "My words on another occasion have given the impression that I believe that some Marines, because of their color, are not as capable as others," Mundy said. "Those were not the thoughts in my mind, nor are they or have they ever been, the thoughts of my heart."
Black Marines, speaking privately, are divided on the topic. "It's not a problem," one captain insisted.
"There's definitely a problem," said another. "And the fact that we're in the middle of a drawdown makes it even worse."
Last week, the corps released figures to back up Mundy. Test scores show small differences between black Marines and other Marines when measured in 19 military skills.
In rifle marksmanship, for example, on a scale of 100 points, blacks scored four points lower than the group as a whole. With pistols, blacks averaged 3.5 points less. In swimming, they scored 7.5 points lower. And in navigation, blacks averaged 4 points less than the class as a whole.
But on the double obstacle course exam, blacks outperformed the group, scoring 3.5 points higher. And in the communications exam, blacks scored 2 points higher than the group.
The test scores show that the disparities existed at least as early as 1983, when Mundy headed the Marines' personnel procurement office. Yet, nothing has been done to improve training programs. However, Marine officials said they are urging rookie officers to learn to swim and get in shape before joining the corps.
Pentagon officials, meanwhile, said they hoped Mundy's renewed efforts to rid the corps of bias will keep him busy for awhile.
"We hope he has nothing else to say," the senior Pentagon official said.
"And we hope it stays that way through the rest of his term," slated to end in June 1995.