January 19, 2001
By Dexter Ingram
Most people know by now that morale in the U.S. armed forces has
dropped to a level not seen since the days of the Carter
Not to worry, say Army officials, we have a quick fix we're
implementing later this year--allowing our troops to wear the black
beret previously reserved for the elite Rangers.
Like most quick fixes, though, this one won't work any better
than a similar initiative tried by the Navy in 1997. The coveted
item then wasn't a beret, but the brown shoes formerly worn only by
To earn their browns, aviators swam a mile in a flight suit,
complete with boots and helmet. They went through intensive
academic and flight training. They capped it off by undergoing the
rigors of prisoner-of-war school.
But now the once-coveted brown shoes can be worn by anyone,
flyer or not. And how about morale? One year later, the Navy fell
short of its recruiting goal by 6,900 active-duty sailors.
The experiment has failed miserably for a very good reason--when
badges of honor are made common, they become cheapened. Every
soldier, sailor, aviator and Marine knows such items create a sense
of pride because they set those who strive hard to be the best
apart from the pack.
To earn these symbols requires an uncommon sense of dedication
and achievement. This is especially true with the elite units. Army
Rangers spend countless hours in situations most people couldn't
imagine, jumping out of airplanes at night or wading through a
swamp at 4 a.m.
They must complete an obstacle course that requires them to
navigate worm pits, move over barbed wire, scale walls and climb
rope--and it's a mile long.
The Army's other elite units--the Green Berets of the U.S.
Special Forces and the maroon berets of paratroopers--go through
similar training. So you can see why, to the Rangers, at least, the
black berets aren't just another piece of headgear.
As one Ranger put it in a letter to Gen. Eric Shinseki, the
Army's chief of staff: "Since military service does not reward
success with financial extravagance, they use accoutrements (such
as medals and patches) to display achievement or prowess. The
respect generated for the high achieving soldier, within the
framework of this symbolism, is analogous to the bonuses and BMWs
handed out to reward excellence in the civilian sector."
But Shinseki is unmoved. He says making the black beret standard
issue will improve morale among its current crop of soldiers and
attract new ones. The Army, he points out, fell 6,300 soldiers
short of its recruitment goals in 1999 alone, so it's time for a
But doesn't Shinseki realize the Navy's drop occurred after the
brown-shoe policy went into effect?
Obviously, the decrease can be attributed to more than shoe
color. But allowing everyone to wear brown shoes or berets lessens
the honor attached to elite units. In other words, the Special
Forces won't be so special anymore.
The military's elite units are like fraternities. They have a
strong sense of family. They have rituals and codes that few
outsiders know. It's something many are proud of and have worked
hard to be a part of. They impose numerous barriers to entry to
make sure applicants are dedicated, competent and bonded with each
other so that they can serve on an effective, committed team.
Having an all-beret army could also create disruption among the
ranks. A spokesman for the Army's Special Operations Command said
the black beret is "something (Rangers) wear with pride...They hold
it in high esteem." So high, in fact, that few non-Rangers are
brave enough to wear one, lest they face the wrath of real Rangers
who have earned it.
One officer told me he "would not want to be the first paymaster
or mechanic to wear a black beret into a bar patronized by
Rangers." (In the Navy, at least, it was not mandatory to wear
brown shoes.) The elite units have worked long and hard to earn
their honors--to be the best in the world.
They would still be that without the berets, of course. Take the
beret off a Ranger, and he's still a Ranger.
But the bottom line is there are deep internal issues that need
to be addressed by today's military. Random deployment schedules,
old equipment and low pay are just a few of the real problems.
Cooler uniforms won't do the trick.
Dexter Ingram, a database editor in the Heritage Foundation's
Center for Media and Public Policy, served as a naval flight
Distributed nationally by Bridge News
ED011901: The Not-So-Special Forces
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