- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 10, 2001

The idea was a bum one to begin with, and has evolved into the grotesque which from time to time happens in the era of gargantuan government. Perversely, the beneficiaries in the Case of the Black Berets will include communist China. Maj. Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, should have gone back to sleep in October when he had the epiphany of outfitting the entire soldiery with the black berets that up to now have been a hard-earned badge of distinction for the elite Army Rangers.

Having decreed, Gen. Shinseki further ordered that all the troops be wearing the headgear by June. Gotcha, chief, responded the Pentagon bureaucrats, we'll order 3 million of the black berets. But it quickly appeared that no U.S. manufacturer could make the one-piece wool beret he wanted. So the Defense Logistics Agency, anxious to comply, waived the law that requires military clothing purchases to be make in U.S.factories of 100 percent American components.

So the logistics gang decided to disregard the so-called "Berry Amendment" so the Army deadline could be met. Thus, the first 1.3million berets at a cost of $23 million have been contracted to companies in Sri Lanka, Romania and several other Third-World countries including the People's Republic of China, a nation whose massive arms buildup is regarded with some apprehension by U.S. military planners looking down the global road.

American apparel manufacturers were understandably annoyed when the word got around. An industry spokesman said that had the Army given more than its urgent one-month notice, U.S. firms would have been able to tool up to make the one-piece berets rather than the two-piece sewn items that one American firm can now produce. With a more liberal deadline, that company and others could have persuaded the Army to accept the differently made headgear at about $4.75 per item, in contrast to $7 per for the Chinese beret, as The Times' Rowan Scarborough reported.

Ah well, it's only $23 million for openers and at the cost of a handful of American jobs. But what was Gen. Shinseki thinking of when he decided that the entire Army should wear black berets? As he (more or less) explained his coruscation, the black berets would signify a special spirit of martial identity as the Army makes a transition into alight, more agile force for the new century. By the best construction,this is analogous to the New Age nonsense of giving every kid a prize so the self-esteem of none will be dented.

The Ranger black beret, however, along with the green beret of the Special Forces and the Airborne red, traditionally have been a symbols of high pride for soldiers who have undergone the rigorous training and discipline of these elite formations. Only those utterly unfamiliar with the special culture of the military would regard those distinctions as frivolous which makes Gen. Shinseki's ukase the more puzzling.

It has not made him popular among the warriors. Protests have grown so intense that President Bush has asked the Defense Department to run the entire drill through its re-cogitation apparatus. "I think it's embarrassing for our country for our soldiers to wear uniforms made in communist China," a Senate defense aide told The Times. Not to put too fine a point on it.

"We've got to help Gen. Shinseki find a way out of this," the congressional aide added. Unfortunately, the general probably has waded too deeply into this unnecessary swamp to be pulled out easily. In the nature of things, his admirable career as a soldier will probably be summed up when he goes to the Last Muster as the general who took the black berets away from the Rangers.


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