No one can ever accuse Gen. P.X. Kelley of being a coward. At a recent farewell breakfast with reporters, the retiring commandant of the Marine Corps blamed working mothers for weakening the moral fiber of the nation.

And here you thought you were helping support your kids.

Specifically, the four-star general said: "I know I'm going to walk in a very, very tender area but I'm going to walk there anyhow.

"Fifty percent of the mothers today work. And that means that a number of our children are not getting the kind of upbringing in their home that you and I had. Instead, their moral upbringing is being dictated by some nameless, faceless child care center. A lot of people aren't going to like that remark, but I'm going to say it anyway.

"And then, you won't like this remark, we took God out of schools." Give Kelley credit for knowing when he's playing with hand grenades.

What made Kelley's remarks even more outrageous was the context in which he made them. Somebody asked him whether he thought that the allegations that the Marines in Moscow were trading secrets for sex and whether Lt. Col. Oliver North's taking the Fifth were indications of a lack of moral fiber in the current corps of Marines. Kelley said he thought that moral deterioration is occurring throughout the nation -- and he suggested setting up an institute "for patriotic values."

One of those values could be knowing what you're talking about before you spout off. Another could be the value of not applying simplistic solutions to complex problems and still another could be the value of not using working mothers as scapegoats. I could write a whole curriculum.

Working mothers have been blamed for everything from increasing substance abuse among young people to a rise in the rate of unemployment -- that, from President Reagan. Now the retiring Marine Corps commandant is blaming working mothers for a perceived weakened moral fiber among American youth.

First, I'm not all that convinced that the moral fiber among American youth is weakened. The Marine Corps sex scandal in Moscow either didn't happen or the case was so badly bungled by prosecutors and investigators that the real scandal was how the case was handled. It is hardly grounds for indicting a whole generation.

Second, the tremendous increase in working mothers has taken place during the past 20 years. Conceivably, some of the Marines initially involved in the sex scandal allegations might have spent some time in child care centers but the odds for someone 20 years old, or older, were against it. Most women who are mothers of 20-year-olds were still working at home when their children were young. Oliver North was born Oct. 7, 1943, the only time when the U.S. had a major investment in a child care system -- and that was so women could work in the factories while men went off to war. Whether Ollie ever did time in a faceless child care center isn't known, but even if he did it would seem a quantum leap from that to taking the Fifth before congressional investigators. Besides, at 43 years of age, he's no longer part of the nation's youth.

Kelley may have every reason in the world to be concerned about the deterioration of the nation's moral fiber, but so far it would seem that the young people are doing better than the adults. All the folks involved in the Iran-contra scandal are from generations raised by mothers who stayed at home. So are Jim and Tammy Bakker and the rest of the PTL cast. And so were the players in the E.F. Hutton check-kiting scandal. (That company pleaded guilty to 2,000 felony counts of wire and mail fraud in a scheme that earned the firm millions in illegal transactions. No one even did any time in jail.) There were no 21-year-olds involved in the insider trading scandals. It's a safe bet that Ivan Boesky, the 50-year-old stockbroker who had to pay a $100 million fine to the government, didn't go to a day care center.

Kelley wants a group of American scholars to convene to "examine the {moral} problems of this country." That's probably not a bad idea. It would be fascinating to learn how the moral fibers of some of the people in the current scandals got shredded. But you can't blame moral deterioration on working mothers any more than you can blame this country's terrible military record since World War II on working mothers. Somebody on Kelley's watch violated one of the most elementary military rules and left 241 service personnel, most of whom were Marines, bunched up at the Beirut airport so that they were blown up by a single terrorist.

It wasn't a working mother.