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Do You Reckon It's The Hats?

J. D. Pendry

I think that one of the causes of these repeated failures is that our best and greatest men have greatly underestimated the size of this question. They have constantly brought forward small cures for great sores - plasters too small to cover the wound. - Abraham Lincoln
It [the black beret] will be a symbol of unity, a symbol of Army excellence, a symbol of our values. -General Eric Shinseki

General, your logic is flawed. It's not the symbols that produce unity, excellence and values. Instead, it's the demonstration of those things that produce the meaningful symbols. In other words, the black beret did not make the Rangers; the Rangers made the beret. If you place a black beret on to the head of an undisciplined, poorly trained soldier the only thing that will change is the hat.

I've never worn a beret of any kind, but I respect those who do. It's not the hat I admire; it's the professionalism consistently displayed by the units and soldiers who wear them. What produces such high quality individuals and units? Do you reckon it's the hats?

I wore a campaign hat for a while so I can speak about that. Day after day, it was the character, professionalism, and hard work of the men and women that brought respect to that distinctive headgear not the other way around. Just as in the elite units, it was self-discipline, high standards, a sense of duty, and probably a dozen other positive attributes you can think of that produced these individuals. It was demanding training and adherence to high standards that produced these attributes. They didn't fall out of the hat when the Drill Sergeant placed it on his or her head. Nor will they magically fall from a black beret and change an undisciplined or substandard soldier into a good one - or produce unity, excellence and values.

Like Mr. Lincoln said, we have a great sore and this hat is a plaster too small for the wound. We need to address what's real if we want to reinstall some pride, excellence, unity, and wear our values. The first step toward that end is leaders focusing on real issues and not cosmetic ones.

  • Try returning basic combat training back to the tough, disciplined, life-changing experience it once was. The first steps toward that end are to emphasize combat and separate the boys from the girls.
  • Stop offering every conceivable enticement to recruit self-centered people. At our current pace, it's only a matter of time until every new recruit is issued a new car on graduation.
  • Try replacing political correctness with frankness, candor and honesty. Insist on it at all levels. The sugar-coated truth is dangerous. It gives our country a false sense of security and it causes our politicians to hold back resources.
  • The Army is not a kiddie march where everyone must get a medal so he feels good about himself. Try raising the bar and insisting that recruits and others come up to our standards instead of lowering ours to meet them.
  • Send packing any commander who pads the stats in order to make his or her unit look better or ready when they're not.
  • If a commander shirks his or her responsibility by uttering the phrase "team command" in reference to his or her senior NCO send him or her packing also. And, use the same rule for the senior NCO.
  • Stop tearing down our warriors with sensitivity training and begin rebuilding them with the kind of tough discipline and training that help them survive.
  • Try fixing health care for our soldiers, families and retirees.
  • Try fixing family housing and barracks.
  • Try getting the OPTEMPO reduced to something a little more bearable for your soldiers.
  • Ask soldiers in elite units why they have discipline, high morale, unity... excellence. I would be surprised if a single one said it's the hat.

I suppose I could go on with this list, but what's the point. There are many, many pressing problems for the Army's leadership to deal with. I doubt if the solution to any of them is in a hat - unless maybe it's one of those magic ones you pull rabbits from.

© 2000 J. D. Pendry