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Britain bewildered at princely decision. Edward opts out of career in Marines, despite royal tradition

Because the British Royal Family and British military traditions go hand in glove, the decision of the Queen's youngest son, Prince Edward, to quit a career in the Royal Marines has caused some public bewilderment. Even Prince Edward's fellow marines seemed nonplussed when the announcement came from Buckingham Palace yesterday.

The decision to leave the Marines a third of the way through the 34-week training period, before an expected nine-year career, was an agonizing choice for Edward, younger brother of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew.

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For Edward, the decision was daunting. To leave now could be interpreted, as some of the more sensational media suggested, that he was a quitter, and temperamentally too ``sensitive'' to last the course. His superiors have been at pains to explain that this was not true and pointed to his high ranking in combat training to refute it.

But the Prince also had to face the inevitable disappointment of his father, Prince Philip. The ramrod-straight, no-nonsense Duke of Edinburgh is the Captain General of the Royal Marines. It was at his insistence that his three sons, Charles, Andrew, and Edward, were subjected to the rigors of Gordonstoun, a public boarding school in Scotland, with its bleak surroundings and spartan regime of cold early morning showers and hard physical exercise. It was euphemistically dubbed ``character building,'' but Prince Charles is said to have loathed it.

For the Duke, the tough early training was a launching pad for a career in one of the branches of the armed services that has long been a royal tradition.

Earl Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh's uncle and a distant cousin of the Queen, was a distinguished World War II admiral, who occupied the key post of chief of combined wartime operations in 1942.

At the coronation of Queen Elizabeth (1953), her consort, Prince Philip, was conspicuously dressed in his naval officer uniform. Prince Andrew, who won praise for his actions in the Falklands War, is a naval helicopter instructor.

But while Prince Edward is reported to have been able to cope with the physical demands of being a marine, the Marine mentality apparently did not suit him. He is always said to be happiest in the more unconventional and liberated atmosphere of Cambridge, where like his elder brother, Charles, he was an enthusiastic thespian. Edward, only fifth in line to the throne, is sometimes regarded as the most academically serious of the three brothers.

The question mark that hovers above him is what career will he now pursue that will both satisfy him and convince the British public he's making an important contribution to society.

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