- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2001

Symbols are important, especially when they have been purchased at high cost. Such is the case of the Armys formerly coveted black berets, well-known symbol of elite special-forces units such as the 82nd Airborne Division and Army Rangers. Then along came marketing guru Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, who also happens to be Army chief of staff. As part of a scheme to make the idea of serving in the Army more attractive and more romantic and he-man-like Gen. Shinseki came up with the altogether terrible idea of making the black beret standard issue to all soldiers alike, from mess hall cooks to commandos. In one fell swoop, an honored symbol became another piece of headgear.
Making matters worse, the berets were initially to come from guess where? The Peoples Republic of China. In order to accommodate Gen. Shinsekis urge to have all soldiers strutting around in their handsome new berets, a pre-existing "buy American" requirement, which would at least have mandated that the contract for supplying the berets go to a U.S. manufacturer, was cast aside and the order placed with China. American soldiers would wear gear made by communist peons laboring in low-wage sweatshops. What a wonderful symbol of Gen. Shinseki and his "Army of One" as the Armys new motto goes.
Mercifully, the decision to have the Chinese manufacture some 600,000 black berets has been nixed by the Bush administration, which has apparently decided to restrain the ardor of Gen. Shinsekis self-esteem program for the Army. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said on Tuesday that "… U.S. troops shall not wear berets made in China or berets made with Chinese content" and that issued berets will be reclaimed.
The general this week stated at a congressional hearing that he had been in the dark about the Chinese procurement decision himself and, when appraised six weeks ago, tried to stop the order. Unfortunately, no one else seems to be in a position to bear out that testimony. The next step should be to rescind Gen. Shinsekis ill-conceived edict entirely and leave the black berets to those who have earned the right to wear them. This is not to castigate or demean ordinary soldiers, but rather to acknowledge the extraordinary sacrifice made by those who accept the challenge and qualify for the various branches of the special forces. Enlisting in the Army is a laudable act of patriotism, but it is not the same thing as making it through the grueling training necessary to become a member of the special forces. Those who qualify have a right to their symbols, and it was ill-advised of Gen. Shinseki so cavalierly to dilute the message of that black beret.


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