Soundings

Stefan Kanfer
A Modest Proposal
The Army of One embraces self-esteem.
Spring 2001

General Eric Shinseki is either: a) a fan of Monica Lewinsky's headgear; or b) a supporter of social promotion—the process whereby high school students receive a diploma after four years, even if they can't read it.

Whatever his reason, the army chief of staff made a stunning announcement last October. To raise self-esteem in the ranks, each enlistee would now have the right to wear a black beret as of this June. Formerly, one would only see the coveted garment on the heads of Rangers, the military's elite combat unit (and, on certain occasions, atop Ms. Lewinsky).

Veteran Rangers suffered in silence when the army slogan changed from the challenging "Be All That You Can Be" to the egocentric "An Army of One." But the idea of a black beret simply issued, rather than earned, was more than they could tolerate. The Ranger website vibrated with denunciations of the new uniform, along with an editorial predicting that "denigrating a symbol of excellence will not by any stretch of the imagination improve the morale of soldiers."

More aggravating news followed. The deadline for producing 3 million black berets was so close that American military outfitters couldn't meet it. Therefore, the army would farm out contracts to factories overseas—in Romania and the People's Republic of China. Small wonder that President Bush ordered a review of General Shinseki's decision.

After much behind-the-scenes negotiating at the Pentagon, a Solomonic compromise came down. All U.S. soldiers will wear their black berets—but only the Rangers may wear berets in the color that's so fashionable this year: tan. As for the decision to purchase the toppers from foreign sources, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said that it "could change."

In light of this brouhaha, I have a modest proposal. If we grant Shinseki's premise that personnel automatically feel good about themselves by donning a symbolic piece of cloth, think of how high esprit would soar if the army issued them a coveted bit of metal. A five-pointed star, for instance. Along with olive drab uniforms and combat boots, these could go to everyone upon enlistment. In the new Army of One, each soldier would then be his—and, of course, her—own brigadier general. Oh, brass hats might complain about items that should be deserved rather than dispensed. But, hey, what's that compared to the sight of comfortable grunts gleaming with insignia and brimming with self-esteem?

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