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.