Army fashion flap points to deep divide

The Rangers' beret will soon be standard issue - a symbolic change that irks many.

Seven hundred miles is a long walk to deliver a hat. But for Army Ranger Dave Scott, delivering a fallen comrade's black beret to President Bush is the most forceful way he could think of to protest the military's newest fashion change.

His beef: The black beret, a symbol of Ranger pride and mettle for 50 years, will become standard Army issue on June 14, 2001, the Army's birthday. The move is intended to symbolize a fractured force's transformation into an "Army of One." But many Rangers think it undermines the kind of elite hierarchy that makes the Army great.

The flap over the cap does, in fact, reflect a deeper debate over the shape of the "new Army." Clearly, the Pentagon wants Ranger pride to rub off on the rest of the troops. But critics note that it takes more than a Ralph Lauren makeover to instill unity and esprit de corps.

"This isn't just the story of a hat," says Carl Conetta, an analyst at the Commonwealth Institute in Cambridge, Mass. "It seems like a debate over a symbol, but the decision of the Army is in itself symbolic of the problem with this transformation:too much symbolism, not enough substance."

Donning his beret and Ranger regalia, Mr. Scott, a Bozeman, Mont., native, began on Feb. 10 an Army-style rucksack march to the White House from Fort Benning, Ga. Carrying a beret that belonged to Ranger James Markwell, who was killed during maneuvers in Panama in 1989, Scott hopes to persuade Mr. Bush to call off the order - in exchange for Ranger Markwell's beret.

To be sure, Scott's rucksack march through the South may challenge the nation's feelings about military fashion. But it's unlikely to change the order from Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army's chief of staff, to make the change.

Yet the issue is reverberating from the Pentagon to the secret Ranger training villages in the North Georgia mountains. "It seems like everyone has a very strong opinion about the beret," says Vicky Lee, a spokeswoman for the Special Ops Command at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville.

Enlistees can't discuss an order. But former Rangers like Scott and his marching "buddy" David Nielsen have taken up the fight, saying the beret is being coopted from the Rangers in an ill-advised public-relations fix.

Reinvention, from hat down

For many Rangers, it goes even deeper. They feel the Army is brandishing the very symbol that stood them apart as the Army's best-trained warriors. In fact, the sharp words and protests hold a critical mirror up to an Army struggling to reinvent itself.

"I can only suppose that this uniform item possesses some sort of magical properties that ... will transform a depleted, crippled, and demoralized Army into the exceptional fighting force that America requires," says Emmett Hiltibrand, the president of the 75th Ranger Regiment Association, in a letter to Gen. Shinseki.

The din over the beret is drawing attention outside the corridors of the Pentagon. Several lawmakers, including Rep. Steve Buyer (R) of Indiana and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina have raised objections.A government reform committee led by Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana is looking into it - including the requisitioning of 2.6 million black berets at $9.35 each from China. Many Rangers continue to push for a congressional probe into Shinseki's order.

"It would be different if you had an accompanying effort to restructure the Army, increase pay and benefits, and go back to some of the traditional values of the Army," says Jim Grimshaw, a Vietnam veteran who now heads the US Army Ranger Association in Savannah, Ga."We need to get back to the hard core stuff that makes soldiers and makes them proud of themselves."

Indeed, observers say Shinseki's decision to revamp the Army starting with the berets is a reaction to both the changing nature of warfare from large conflicts to regional spats and morale issues among the troops.

Inspired by a sea of green, black, and maroon berets at a changing of the guard ceremony at Ft. Benning last summer, Shinseki wants the cap to symbolize America's new "objective force:" a compendium of small, mobile, and lethal task forces that can be put on the battlefield in a hurry.

The Army says imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.The 'new' Army will look a lot like a Ranger regiment:small, quickly deployable, and highly effective."That's where we're taking the entire force," says Lt. Col. Russ Oaks, a Pentagon spokesman.

He notes that the move isn't about recruiting, retention, or morale. It's about "our excellence as soldiers, our unity as a force, and our values as an institution."

So far, however, the fashion shift has been a PR flop. A letter-writing poll taken by the creator of the Mallard Fillmore cartoon strip seems to sum up the feeling:"12 for and 1,700 against," the investigative mallard announced in a recent strip. A tracking poll by the Army Times shows 70 percent of the armed forces support the rucksack march.

Army veterans bemoan what they see as a trend toward social conformity instead of individual achievement. It especially irks them that other special-operations groups get to keep their green and maroon berets.

Don't mess with them

Rangers are one-of-a-kind: Only one in 200 soldiers are accepted into Ranger training, where they're taught to take on the toughest fighters in the world. That attitude plays into the elite unit's pride, epitomized by shout-outs of "Hooah!" and the moniker "RLTW!": Rangers lead the way. Finishing the training gives the soldiers style and swagger.

"The black beret is a psychological factor to anybody who's thinking about messing around with America," says Grimshaw, a former instructor at the Ranger training school in Florida.

Still, not all Rangers are gung-ho about the beret protest. Three of the five Ranger associations have decided not to call for a congressional investigation.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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