WASHINGTON — The Army's personnel chief apologized to the Marines Thursday for calling them "extremists" but not before her comments brought a scolding from Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and a demand from Republican lawmakers for her ouster.
In an incident that hinted at cultural tensions within the military, Assistant Secretary of the Army Sara E. Lister apologized for comments she had made at a Harvard-sponsored seminar on relations between the armed forces and the civilian world.
Lister told the group, which met in Baltimore on Oct. 26: "I think the Army is much more connected to society than the Marines are. The Marines are extremists. Whenever you have extremists, you have some risks of total disconnection with society. And that's a little dangerous."
In a letter to Marine Commandant Charles Krulak, Lister said that her use of the word " 'extremism' was inappropriate and wrong." But she insisted that her thoughts had been "taken out of context" in a news report.
"My point--ineptly put--was that all the services had different relationships with civilian society, based in part on their culture, the size of their force and their mission," she wrote Krulak.
On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and other Republicans demanded that Lister be fired. In a letter to President Clinton, Gingrich said that her remark had damaged the morale of the entire military.
"Nothing less than her dismissal and a full apology on your part" would suffice, Gingrich wrote.
The House passed a nonbinding resolution calling for Lister's removal.
In her comments, Lister also seemed to make fun of the Marines' uniforms, saying that the Marines "have all these checkerboard fancy uniforms and stuff," while the Army "is sort of muddy boots on the ground."
The remarks brought a fiery reaction from Krulak, who said in a statement that the comments would "dishonor hundreds of thousands of Marines whose blood has been shed in the name of freedom. Honor, courage and commitment never are extreme."
Cohen "agrees with her 100% that the remarks were inappropriate and wrong," said Kenneth Bacon, the chief Pentagon spokesman. "He's satisfied that this has been handled the proper way, with an apology to the commandant."
The Army and the Marines, both with ground combat missions, are sharply divided by some aspects of their cultures.
The Marines cling fiercely to the corps' traditional "warrior culture" and continue to train men and women separately in boot camp. The Army talks more about cooperation and mutual support to get its mission accomplished and for the last three years has put men and women together in basic training.
Lister has been a strong advocate of that change and has also pushed to open more jobs near the front lines to women. She has sometimes been outspoken on gender issues, as she was last week when she criticized the Assn. of the U.S. Army, the Army's chief professional organization, for putting up $20,000 to support a group that espouses a conservative view of the military's role.
Lister's comments were first reported in the Washington Times.
Lister and another assistant secretary are the two highest-ranking women in the Army. She had already announced this fall that she will retire Nov. 21.