The record of the Kennedy Administration in the field of military human relations is the opposite of its generally good record in the field of civilian human relations. However pleasant he may be in his personal dealings, Secretary of Defense McNamara has transmitted a public "image" of coolness, aloofness and, sometimes, eyen of disdain.
This impression seemed to have been confirmed last fall when the Department of Defense announced a one-dollar-per-visit charge for out-patient treatment of military "dependents" in military hospitals.
Out-patient treatment in the average military hospital has all the joys of a city hospital charity clinic.
But up until the dollar-per-visit directive, such treatment was looked upon as a traditional and honorable part of a soldier's pay.
Intentionally or not, the directive said to military men all over the world: "We want you, but we would just as soon get along without the wife and kids."
This interpretation was supported by the fact that the dollar-per-visit charge would not have covered its own bookkeeping costs. Secretary McNamara withdrew the directive after the Army-Navy-Air Force Journal described the charge as "miserly."
But the damage was done.
The brawling, wenching service bum, so fascinating to our novelists, has never been truly characteristic of our military leadership. Within the past decade, there has been an even more decided shift against this type of moral misfit.
At the heart of this transition is the military wife and what were once known as her "Army brats."
Some of her sisters have made themselves and their country obnoxious by an exaggerated rank, class and nation consciousness.
But in the vast majority of cases, the service wife and mother has provided the stabilizing and humanizing force in the military environment.
Her children are better mannered, and far better disciplined than the average in the nation as a whole.
In accompanying her husband to imperiled posts, the service wife has taught us all that there are values in family life more important than safety.
The insurance lobby has stripped her family of low-cost insurance protection. The retail-trade associations lie in wait around every legislative corner to snatch the parcels from her post exchange and commissary basket. Within the past two years. Time and the Saturday Evening Post have printed articles on the military family that were so shallow and inaccurate as to constitute a slander.
The day that any significant number of service wives decide that this sort of thing is not worth the cost in terms of loneliness, separation and, all too often, substandard living conditions will be a day of disaster for the efficiency of our military establishment.
Whether the services continue to attract high-caliber men—and retain them—rests squarely with Secretary McNamara.
Mr. McNamara is close to the danger point right now.
He has shown no disposition to fight—and fight fiercely and publicly—against the latest grab by the retail-trade associations, now taking shape.
He has allowed his Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs to "hang" military officers on the basis of incomplete and exaggerated press reports. The Paar incident in Berlin is a prime example.
Mr. McNamara can move away from this danger point by proving to the men and women of our armed services that they and their families—not cost analyses and "program packages"—count first with him.