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ED011901: The Not-So-Special Forces

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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 administration.

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 aviators.

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 change.

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 officer.

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