Good Riddance to the Black Beret

Happy birthday U.S. Army! You’re older than the nation, the shield of our democracy, and the sword of our liberty — and you’ve got a winning battlefield record over 236 years. For your birthday, it’s a pleasure to see that you’re getting your patrol caps back, and ditching the black beret.

I should note here that I was actually in the Army, astonishing though that fact is to everyone who knows me. I served in the 46th Engineer Battalion at Fort Polk, Louisiana, where my major accomplishment was repairing culverts and building a bridge or two in northern Nicaragua as part of Operation Fuerte Apoyo. Yes, Sandinista country benefitted from my platoon, and I am proud of that.

I am less proud of my general ineptitude in garrison. An incident from my cadet days is sufficient illustration. At the Furman University ROTC battalion, we often trained at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and on this particular exercise we were running a lane in the piney, sandy woods there. “ENDEX” — that is, “end of exercise” — was called, and we were told to clear the chambers of our M16s. The way to do this is to pull out your magazine, pull the charging handle to the rear, and watch whatever round is in there pop out. You could do that. Or you could switch to full auto and fire off absolutely everything. This struck me as the swift and efficient way to accomplish the given directive. Turns out it was not the preferred method.

This more or less set the tone for the remainder of my service. Thank God it was the ’90s.

It was not long after I left that several Army friends relayed to me rumors of the black beret. As the standard-issue patrol cap was one of the few things we didn’t complain about, it seemed like a bizarre and meaningless decision. Why give the entire force the coveted symbol of the Ranger?

But then it came. And everyone hated it.

Really, everyone hated it. The black beret was the mark of the Ranger, which is about as hardcore and high-level as you can get in the fighting Army. Being a Ranger is hard won, and jealously guarded. Then-Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki (later to be sacked for accurately predicting the necessary size of the Iraq force) handed out the Ranger beret to the entire force, in the same manner as an elementary school teacher tells her class, “You’re all special.” Soldiers knew this to be a lie, and recoiled. We weren’t all special. The United States Army is not a constituency that appreciates that sort of gesture. In a way, the whole collective-effort denial-of-self thing aside, the Army almost a perfect Randian society in that nothing is materially unearned. (This is also, I note, a condemnation of Randian society.)

The lèse-majesté of wearing the Ranger beret aside — Rangers were issued tan berets instead — berets themselves require a ridiculous amount of maintenance. I briefly wore a maroon beret when assigned to an “Airborne” unit at Fort Polk. (This unit was not Airborne in any real sense, as evidenced by my assignment there and the fact that it never, ever, jumped.) To get my maroon beret ready for wear, I had to stand in a shower so it molded to my head — and then I had to shave the thing. With a safety razor. There’s uniform maintenance, and there’s uniform maintenance: if a subculture that presses and starches BDUs and shines boots nightly thinks something is ridiculous — then it really is.

So, the black beret was the worst of all worlds: it served no practical purpose, it signified unearned privilege, and it incurred meaningless extra work. The middle of those three things has no place in our Army. Good riddance to it, and Army — here’s a patrol cap for your birthday.

  1. Wylee Coyote
    Casey Taylor: Now if we could just move on to the boonie cap and get some decent camouflage all would be right with the Army world. · Jun 14 at 7:35p

    So long as the Marine Corps doesn’t follow suit.  Though not as formally recognized as the Ranger beret, the boonie is the traditional cover of Marine Recon, and would have the same “unearned privilege” issues.

  2. Chris Johnson

     I spent my high school years at Ft. Bragg, where there were red berets for the Airborne, green for the Special Forces and black for the Rangers.  The rest, well I think they were the ball caps.

    Anyway, I was surprised and saddened when they handed out the black berets to all of the troops.  The worst, for me, was watching footage of Lindie England (sp?) walking up to her court martial, after Abu Ghraib, wearing the black beret.  There was, perhaps, no one ever less qualified to wear that cover.

  3. Skyler
    Wylee Coyote

    Casey Taylor: Now if we could just move on to the boonie cap and get some decent camouflage all would be right with the Army world. · Jun 14 at 7:35p

    So long as the Marine Corps doesn’t follow suit.  Though not as formally recognized as the Ranger beret, the boonie is the traditional cover of Marine Recon, and would have the same “unearned privilege” issues. · Jun 15 at 1:09am

    I don’t think the boonie cap can be claimed as exclusive to the Marine Corps, especially when we’re hardly ever allowed to wear it.  It’s just a floppy hat.  Now, if you were to adopt the 8-point cover, then we’d be having some words.  

  4. Grendel

    Oh at last.  What great news on flag day! 

    As a parachutist in 5th Special Forces Group I was allowed to wear the green beret.  (There was no conflict with the fully qualified SF guys.  The thought was if you are doing the job you get the hat.  The one I wore and have in the bottom of my cedar chest was given to me by one of the SF regulars.)  But even we just wore it in garrison.  In the field we wore “boonie” or “go-to-hell” hats. 

    The only weather the beret is suited for is cool and dry with girls. Nowadays, the SF are getting grief from the garri-troopers for the non-regulation (i.e., non-dorkie) baseball caps they wear in the field.

  5. Dave Carter
    C

    First off, Joshua, thank you for your service.  I was in the mid-east when Gen. Shinseki was publicly tossing around the idea of a beret. Of course, by the time his ruminations made The Army Times, most folks knew it was a done deal.  There were a good number of Army folks on base (Patriot Battery), and they were not at all happy for exactly the reasons you describe.  The brass took something that was not broken, and broke it anyway.  

    And you’re right, they don’t exactly give those things away.  On our first day in Security Forces training, we asked our lead instructor when we would get our berets.  ”When you earn them,” he answered while flashing a truly evil smile.  Talk about a “chilling effect.” This guy was spec ops in Vietnam and had enough medals to armor a deuce and a half.  Good instructor, great warrior.  Would that he could have talked with the good General for just five minutes.  It would have saved a lot of trouble and money.  

  6. Joshua Treviño
    C

    Dave, if you’re in Lake Charles, you know almost certainly know the environment at Polk well. And I couldn’t agree more — in a culture where you had to earn the privilege of speaking in complete sentences, being handed the black beret rubbed against everything we were trained to value.

    And it didn’t shade the eyes worth a dang.

  7. Dave Carter
    C
    Joshua Treviño, Guest Contributor: Dave, if you’re in Lake Charles, you know almost certainly know the environment at Polk well. And I couldn’t agree more — in a culture where you had to earn the privilege of speaking in complete sentences, being handed the black beret rubbed against everything we were trained to value.

    And it didn’t shade the eyes worth a dang. · Jun 14 at 5:55pm

    Actually, a good portion of my family is from Pitkin.  My great great grandparents’ home still stands there.  The family has maintained it and we use it to this day as a kind of retreat.  

    As to the beret not shading the eyes,  THIS is why people who spent a career wearing it have that steely-eyed look.  It’s simply all that squinting…

  8. Craig McLaughlin

    Being a Navy vet I hesitate to stick my toes in this water, but when the black beret change came about I had sort of the same feeling as when the Navy came out with the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon in 1980.  Our Command Masterchief summed it up thus: “It is time for me to retire when sailors get ribbons just for going to sea.”

  9. Basil Fawlty
    M1919A4: My favorite always was the Garrison or Overseas cap, otherwise known s a [expletive] cap.  It was handy, easy to store and clean, and comfortable.  But, it did not keep the sun from one’s eyes.  The fatigue cap (not the later used baseball cap), with its stiff bill was a favorite when that uniform was the drill; it did serve as a sunshade.  But, I fear, I betray my age and time of service.  · Jun 14 at 7:55pm

    I believe the Code of Conduct requires use of the phrase “[expletive] cap” here.

    My proudest military moment came when they issued blue baseball caps to our Army aviation unit.  NCOs got red and officers got black.  Cool!

    [Ed.: Correct about Code of Conduct -- edited previous instances.]

  10. LowcountryJoe
    Joshua Treviño, Guest Contributor: Happy birthday U.S. Army! Then-Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki (later to be sacked for accurately predicting the necessary size of the Iraq force) handed out the Ranger beret to the entire force, in the same manner as an elementary school teacher tells her class, “You’re all special.” 

    So, the black beret was the worst of all worlds: it served no practical purpose, it signified unearned privilege, and it incurred meaningless extra work. The middle of those three things has no place in our Army. Good riddance to it, and Army — here’s a patrol cap for your birthday. ·

    I really enjoyed this contribution.  Especially the portions I quoted.  Good stuff; very well written.

  11. Casey Taylor

    As an added bonus we get to sew on our rank, name, U.S. Army tape, and skill badges.  No more non-tactical Velcro and pokey grommets!

    *Sorry, “hook-and-loop fasteners.”  Don’t want to infringe on anybody’s copyright.

  12. Bill Walsh

    Amen. Not only did it reek of the “everybody gets a trophy” ethos Joshua limns, but it always struck me as a transparent attempt to make our troops look more like the armies of many of our NATO allies which do use berets universally. Which, you know, with all due regards to the Cold War alliance, seemed pretty idiotic in the ’90s, as they were all phasing themselves out of the warfighting game.

  13. M1919A4

    Thanks, Brother Fawlty; I ought to have remembered that,  I need to reread the Code.

  14. Charles Allen

    Like Dave was, I am but an Air Force puke, so I will leave the informed opinions to Casey and his brethren…though I do admit to making a few Monica Lewinsky jokes when they first appeared on the scene.

  15. Michael Labeit

    Good riddance. It’s a rag. And I brought it to the field at Eielson AFB for no reason now.

  16. Casey Taylor

    The worst part of wearing that thing didn’t become apparent to me until the first major ceremony I participated in after it was approved for wear:  August, Tampa, tight wool hat with no brim.  Genius.

  17. Paladin

    I am so happy this change is being made. We haven’t gotten completely rid of them yet though, they’ll still be the headgear for the ASU.

    Josh, in your list of things you have to do to get the beret ready for wear you forgot that there is a giant piece of cardboard behind the flash that needs to be cut out with scissors in order to not look ridiculous.

  18. Kervinlee

    To all the Ricochet veterans, thank you for your service.

    If the soldiers don’t like the beret and don’t want to wear it for whatever reason, ok by me. I think they didn’t sign up to put on a fashion show, anyway.

  19. Casey Taylor

    Now if we could just move on to the boonie cap and get some decent camouflage all would be right with the Army world.

    And thank you, Kervinlee.

    Robert, how’s it going out there?  You making the transition alright?

  20. Basil Fawlty
    M1919A4: Thanks, Brother Fawlty; I ought to have remembered that,  I need to reread the Code. · Jun 15 at 7:02am

    Holy [expletive]!  They actually edited it!  Didn’t mean to be a tattletale, M.