- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2001

Not for nothing is the mule the symbol of the Army. Sometimes you have to whack mules and generals between the eyes to get their attention.

Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, took such a hit this week after the Pentagon stubbornly refused to take a hint from the commander in chief to think again about handing out black berets, like khaki skivvies, to every man (and woman) in the Army.

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The final whack came not from President Bush, who offered a gentle hint, but from Congress. When the congressmen who pass on defense appropriations told the Pentagon to pay attention, someone at the Pentagon finally decided that maybe someone should.

A spokesman for Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, said the department would not only look into the idea of universal black berets, but at the decision to bypass U.S. manufacturers in violation of the law to award contracts to factories in China, of all countries.

The idea of universal black berets, the symbol of the Rangers, came from Gen. Shinseki himself, as "a symbol of the transformed Army for the 21st Century." Generals are not accustomed to anyone questioning whether their bright ideas are really as bright as they think they are, and when George W. Bush suggested that the Army take another look the generals and their colonels-in-waiting apparently decided that it was not necessary to humor the commander in chief on this one.

The Rangers, a lean, mean outfit trained to take the toughest assignments, are jealous of the black beret, earned by the kind of physical punishment that a lot of folks would regard as hazing, and don't understand why their symbol should suddenly be given to cooks, clerks and latrine orderlies just to make them feel good about themselves and the 21st century. The Rangers have worn the black beret since 1951, not long after the 2nd Battalion made the Rangers' reputation on Omaha Beach. The "boys of Pointe du Hoc" lost 135 of the 225 men who wrested the position from the Germans.

When the Rangers, usually in the voice of ex-Rangers no longer in the Army and no longer subject to military discipline, protested, the Army brushed them off. Gen. Shinseki declined to meet them, and his spokesman blew off their concerns: "We are not seriously investigating that there is a morale problem because we don't believe there is one." At one point the Army put out a statement from a sergeant major that "the decision has been made, and it is not up for discussion."

Too bad for the Army, but sergeant majors and lieutenant colonels and even decorated four-star generals don't get to decide what is and what is not up for discussion. It's odd that the Pentagon, usually deft at this kind of Washington dancing, stumbled so badly, first ignoring the president, then brushing him off, and not doing what it should have known it would have to do, until a growing number of congressmen began to make noise. Everyone was clearly trying to give the general, whom everyone admires, an opportunity to retreat with his flag still aloft.

Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, finally wrote to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He chose his words carefully, but his meaning was clear enough. "I am requesting a 'stand down' to permit officials of the Bush administration an opportunity to review the policy and report to you. This was a decision made during the Clinton administration which I believe, in light of the outpouring of conscientious concern from both active and former soldiers, deserves a second look by the Bush administration."

He was not rendering a final judgment on the black berets, the senator said, but when one of the former Rangers who marched 750 miles to Washington to protest offered the senator, a Marine, a black beret for himself, he declined. "I'm not going to take it because I didn't earn it."

Gen. Shinseki is, alas, right about one thing. The 21st century Army is "a transformed Army," and the proof of it is the sagging morale that the general's spokesman insists the Army doesn't see. The military is led by senior officers of a new generation, who appear to believe that the traditions of selfless service and battlefield sacrifice are not as important as they once were. We've got computers now. When girls and gays can do it, who needs the example of Stonewall Jackson and Phil Sheridan and Alvin York and George S. Patton in "a transformed Army?"

But one day sooner if not later the "transformed Army" will be called on to fight a tougher foe than Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard or unorganized riffraff in the Third World. When that day arrives there won't be anything virtual about the reality.

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