Clothes don't make the man, but they sure tell you something about him. That goes for hats, too. Every generation has its own symbols of what it takes to be a hip male and the first clue is often the hat or the hair. A little dab won't do ya, no greasy kid stuff, please. (Ask your mom.)
Little boys (and big ones, too) wear their caps with the visor aimed backwards and woe to the kid who doesn't. A man who wears a fedora in 2001 suggests an old-fashioned masculine attitude, a nostalgic affinity for the '40s and '50s. Think Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, James Cagney. Symbols on football helmets (rams horns, Indian feathers, Spartans, longhorns, razorbacks) are symbols of pride. But you have to make the team to get one.
So Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, shouldn't have been surprised -though he seems to have been- that his order to distribute black berets to the whole Army outraged the Rangers and angered half of Congress. It cheapened the badge of distinction of a very special unit that put down its markers on Omaha Beach. It was like grade inflation, giving an A to every student for simply showing up. You don't win a Silver Star at target practice.
"To give the headgear to every soldier in the Army is disrespectful to the soldiers who are triple volunteers -volunteers for the Army, volunteers for the Airborne and volunteers for dangerous assignments and missions," says Jimmy Dean of the Special Forces Association, a group of former and current Green Berets.
Having heard all that, the fuss over the black berets is about something more that what you see on a soldier's head. It sounds to me like a growing crisis in masculine pride in our Armed Forces.
It's been a long time since the warrior culture in America enjoyed anything close to universal admiration. Ever since John Wayne went to that great bivouac in Heaven, the soldier image in the popular culture has diminished in the public mind. We prefer astronauts (if not athletes and rock stars). We think they're made of the "right stuff" and there are not so many of them.
The black beret means a lot because it makes distinctions; it tells you who is the toughest of the tough, the fiercest of the fearless, the bravest beyond the bravado. The rough 'n' ready rangers need all the help they can get.
"Make love, not war" was a celebrated sentiment during the Vietnam War years and it hasn't really gone away. "Saving Private Ryan," set in World War II, was nominated for an Academy Award but it couldn't compete with "Shakespeare in Love." Venus trumped Mars. Tom Hanks, the star of "Private Ryan," did a fine acting job, but his portrayal was not heroic, but rather a portrait of decent guy doing his job. Bob Dole, the last World War II hero to run for president, retired to shilling for Viagra.
It's easier to appreciate dead heroes. The big warrior movie of this past season, "Gladiator," is about gladiators of another time and place. The superstar Russell Crowe portrays a man who will fight like a lion; to do less is to die.
He's the personification of brute force, the traditional heroic image of the warrior, but there's also something cartoonish about his character. He growls and grunts, maximizing maleness, stopping just a dagger away from looking comically grotesque. He couldn't possibly be taken seriously by contemporary audiences without his historical props. He would look silly in a black beret and he would look even sillier arguing about what it symbolizes. Each contest testifies to his courage.
But the contemporary Army must depend on costume for definition, to sort the men from the girls, you might say. The placement of recruitment ads reflects the latest psychological conflicts in the military. When the Army was criticized for running too many recruitment commercials during Sunday football games, the generals broadened their perspective to appeal to audiences of the sitcom "Friends," "The Simpsons," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Comedy Central."
They've scrapped the slogan "Be all you can be" for an appeal to recruits for "An Army of One." (Tell that to old Sarge.) Market researchers identified a desire in potential recruits for instant gratification, reflecting a "me now" philosophy and an affinity for "people like me." The new ad features a corporal, a solitary runner with a heavy backpack, who says, "Even though there are 1,045,690 soldiers just like me, I am my own force."
Are you listening, Gen. Shinseki? That means berets in 1,045,690 shades of khaki, black -and pink.