Hat Dance

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.

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courtesy of Ambrose Beers
pictures Terry Colon

Ambrose Beers