"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 5 March 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Hat Dance

One sign of an elite group is a tendency to keep following a well-worn groove, never noticing that it runs in a circle. The same few conversations keep trundling back around, in different armbands and different bodies. The same people, in different names and at different times, keep lending it all the same pointless regard. In the latest case, the argument centers on the issue of some special hats, but we'll get to that.

A few years ago, Thomas Ricks waited by the yellow footprints on the pavement at Parris Island to watch a group of hapless new Marine Corps recruits step off the bus for boot camp. Later, just beyond mid-cycle, Ricks recorded a series of awestruck admissions from those same young men that seven weeks of precision marching and brutal punishment had changed everything, sir, and changed it all forever. "People outside military life," one entirely typical trainee helpfully explained, "are repulsive." Another seven-week man allowed that America as a whole, almost, could clearly use more military discipline: "Outside of South Boston, I feel it's gotten pretty pathetic. No one strives to be their best."

And there were, Ricks noted, plenty of Marines outside the gates of Parris Island who wholeheartedly agreed with that assessment (and undoubtedly still do). Essays in the Marine Corps Gazette have predictably warned of the tired threat from fellow countrymen who have "thrown away the values, morals and standards that define traditional Western culture."

"The next real war we fight," warned a Gazette essay, summing up the game and the stakes in one neat sentence, "is likely to be on American soil." (It's probably not worth being that upset over the Grammys, but still.)

So skip ahead, easy one, to the punchline. A year after the hardened elites of Platoon 3086 heaped disdain upon their nasty civilian analogs — whom they would one day, being superior, have to fight — eight of the platoon's fifty-five graduates had run away from the Corps or been thrown out, and others were teetering on the edge; some of the loudest fault-finders and chest-thumpers were among those who fell or were pushed to the side. At least one of the new Marines most often suspected of being a closet civilian in his training days (he was into the, um, Cranberries) had gone on to thrive in ways that some of the most self-consciously superior couldn't quite touch. If all of this reminds you of a whole long list of ex-bosses, well, no kidding.

The lieutenant colonel who was the platoon's old commander decided, after that one-year reality check, that the fifteen percent of his former trainees who had endured the strengthening fire but still turned out to be nasty, non-South Bostonian types were "casualties in our war." The war with, remember, that anti-Western God population the Marines are getting ready to shoot.

Misery loves company, though, and the embattled knights of the Marine Corps might be pleased to know that another elite has also struggled with the deadweight of a big dumb culture.

In 1902, Vladimir Lenin was still many years away from getting this one really cool job that he wanted. The blueprint he drew of his job-hunting process bears the Time-Life how-to title What Is to Be Done? — first caulk the revolution, then sand it smooth. The book describes a vanguard of hardened thinkers who would necessarily impose political discipline on the slouching body of proletarian culture; Lenin found nothing quite as distasteful as spontaneity, mass movement without enlightened design. He was, it turns out, a communist.

The Yale professor James C. Scott, aside from having played a magnificent Patton, has neatly explored Lenin's passionate attachment to manufactured human order. He writes that the well-preserved corpse was enraptured with the now-familiar idea that "superior knowledge, authoritarian instruction, and social design could transform society." (And you better sound off when you revolt, worker!)

"Thus the vanguard party not only is essential to the tactical cohesion of the masses," Scott sums up, "but must also literally do their thinking for them... The relationship depicted is so asymmetrical that one is even tempted to compare it to the relation that a craftsman has to his raw material... Just as the force of a powerful magnet aligns a chaos of a thousand iron fillings, so the party's leadership is expected to turn a crowd into a political army."

But there was a big problem, and Lenin fretted and fidgeted at length on the threat of "petit-bourgeois bacilli" and "infection." The party would have to figure out, as Scott puts it, "how to train revolutionists who will be close to the workers (and perhaps of worker background themselves) but who will not be absorbed, contaminated, and weakened by the political and cultural backwardness of the workers." The answer, we now know, is pretty simple: Recruit from South Boston.

The final reality that can't be missed, though, is that Lenin's vanguard pretty much wasn't. "What must forcefully strike any reader of accounts of the detailed events of late October 1917," Scott writes, "is the utter confusion and localized spontaneity that prevailed. The very idea of centralized coordination in this political environment was implausible. In the course of battle, as military historians and astute observers have always understood, the command structure typically falters... In Lenin's case, the command-and-control structure could hardly falter, as it had never existed in the first place."

What Lenin did do was move to occupy the vacuum. Scott quotes Hannah Arendt: "The Bolsheviks found power lying in the street, and picked it up." And that, pretty much, is what an elite is good for.

Which brings us to the special hats — more specifically, to the black berets worn by the US Army Rangers. Early this summer, every soldier in the Army will be issued one of the berets, transforming a symbol of a particular elite into a symbol of the institution as a whole; the Army's chief of staff hopes, apparently, to make a largely demoralized force feel good about itself. ("Look, sergeant! I have a special hat! I'm gonna go clean the colonel's toilet again, now!")

The Rangers, predictably, are magnificently aggrieved by the assault on their specialness, and their cries of pain have brought the bad reporters running. Journalists have a remarkable tendency to turn into groupies around military elites in a way that entirely overcomes even the slightest skeptical application of fact, and the sight of moping Rangers brought out the very worst of it. The ordinarily sober Christian Science Monitor, for a favorite example, ran a story that marked a transition with the subhead: "Don't Mess With Them." Took some restraint to leave out the exclamation point, for sure.

More seriously, the Feb. 15 story parrots a dangerous and deeply ahistorical notion of the role that the Rangers — that all of the military's elite forces — play in actually defending the country. Many Rangers, notes reporter Patrik Jonsson, think the loss of the specialness of their special hat "undermines the kind of elite hierarchy that makes the Army great." And that, he adds, puts the country in a bad spot with its enemies. As a former Ranger instructor says, in the penultimate paragraph of the story, "The black beret is a psychological factor to anybody who's thinking about messing around with America."

Two problems.

The Rangers are, probably without question, the finest light infantry forces in the world — all three battalions of them. But it's probably safe to say that the rest of the planet isn't keeping the leash on their planned invasion of Vallejo — Sea World will be ours, comrades! — because of 3,000 guys and their rifles. (And hats. Special hats.)

As for that "elite hierarchy" that makes the Army great: You're lucky grandpa isn't around to hear you say that, pal. Hundreds of thousands of American servicemen died in combat in the last century alone; most, by far, weren't Rangers, or anything like it. In fact, most weren't even servicemen at all, to begin with. Think of the photographs taken in front of recruiting stations on the Monday morning after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, of all those men who responded because their country was actually attacked; think of all those draftees who went to Vietnam anyway. Think of all the men in both groups who didn't come home. And then think of a Ranger's absurd special hat: Those men weren't good enough to wear the beret of a kid serving in a Ranger battalion in 2001? The Army, like any institution, only very rarely rises to greatness. And when it does, it does so with the courage and sacrifice of a whole lot of people the self-styled elites think of as basically unworthy.

The Rangers — or at least some of the older ones — probably know this, at some level. Recall that, when a Ranger patrol was trapped under heavy fire in Mogadishu, not too many years back, it wasn't a Ranger unit that fought its way through to rescue them; troops of the 10th Mountain Division saved the lives of their elite colleagues, and the Rangers took the ride home without worrying about what kind of hats they wore.

And this is, ultimately, the way things usually turn out. When people have time on their hands and no real challenge to confront, they peel off and form clubs. Some of those clubs begin marking boundaries that place everyone else outside of their circle. And then the crisis comes, the time of actual need; utter confusion and local spontaneity prevail. Structures falter. And people are left with what they are, and what they have, and they knock that shit off. They usually don't have a choice.

courtesy of Ambrose Beers

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