Arrogance of Army brass undermines leadership, morale

By Charles Bloomer
web posted March 26, 2001

The current fiasco over berets in the Army reveals an arrogance on the part of the Army leadership that is inexcusable. In October of last year, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki issued an edict that all Army personnel would wear black berets beginning in June, 2001. The order was met with significant opposition, especially from Army Rangers for whom the black beret was a mark of distinction that identified their rigorous training and separated them from the rest of the Army.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, right, accompanied by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, meets reporters at the Pentagon Friday, March 16, 2001 where he defended his decision
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, right, accompanied by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, meets reporters at the Pentagon Friday, March 16, 2001 where he defended his decision

It appears fairly obvious that Gen Shinseki's decision to issue black berets to all Army personnel was ill-conceived, poorly researched and inadequately staffed. The opposition to the order was not anticipated and, when it appeared, was poorly answered.

In his effort to make soldiers feel good about themselves (truly an exercise in social engineering), Gen Shinseki has managed to undermine morale and raise serious doubt about the legitimacy of Army senior leadership.

General Shinseki and his staff failed to review the impact of the proposed uniform change, and failed to realize that military people take their uniforms seriously. The General could have looked at attempts by other services to change uniforms and the results of those attempts.

In the early 1970s, the Navy decided to do away with the characteristic and universally recognizable "cracker jack" uniform. Enlisted personnel would instead wear a uniform similar to that worn by officers and chief petty officers. The problem was that sailors hated it. Sailors wanted to look like sailors. The cracker jack uniform immediately identified the wearer as a sailor. In the new uniform, people didn't know if the sailor was indeed a sailor or the doorman. Wearing the old uniform, a sailor got asked "what ship?" In the new uniform, he got asked "what service?"

The uniform change was defended by the Navy leadership and several reasons were put forth trying to justify the change. But those rationalizations didn't hold water. It took the Navy several years before it got the message, but eventually, the cracker jack uniform was brought back.

A few years ago, the Air Force Chief of Staff determined that airmen should have a new uniform, one that more closely identified Air Force personnel with civilian flyers. The new uniform would have no external pockets and would show no metal insignia. Instead, rank would be identified by silver stripes on the sleeve, similar to a Navy officer's uniform, or that worn by an airline pilot. The reaction was immediate and negative. The incoming Chief of Staff cancelled the uniform change.

The new tan beret for Army Rangers
The new tan beret for Army Rangers

Gen Shinseki learned nothing from these experiences, except to make sure the change got implemented before he left his position. The next Army Chief of Staff will find it much more difficult to turn around a uniform change that had already been implemented than one that was still in the works, no matter how unpopular. It could be done, but with increased confusion and annoyance of the troops.

Adding insult to injury, the rapid deployment of the new berets caused the General Services Administration to bypass US manufacturers and award contracts to produce the new berets to Communist China and other foreign producers. American soldiers will wear uniform items made by our most dangerous potential enemy.

Given the recent history of failures of proposed uniform changes, including the lowering of morale and the irritation of the troops, persisting in the face of massive opposition is nothing short of arrogant. The Army leadership seems to have forgotten that the real Army exists outside the Pentagon. It would be natural to expect some opposition to change, and it would be prudent to persist when the change is necessary to improve military capability. It would be natural for the Army Chief of Staff to expect his orders to be followed. But just because he can order something, doesn't mean he should.

Gen Shinseki's lack of good judgment is reflected in his decision to issue a black beret to every soldier, despite the fact that the black beret has traditionally been worn by the elite Rangers. In addition, the lack of judgment is evident in his persistence to push this change despite opposition by Ranger organizations, letters from congressmen and senators, and a not-so-subtle hint from the Commander in Chief. This arrogance results in a deterioration in the perceived legitimacy of leadership of the senior Army officials in general, and Gen Shinseki in particular. The persistence of Gen Shinseki leads the Army troops to doubt that the general has the best interests of the troops in mind. Instead, the appearance is that the general has made a decision for better or worse, and will, with mule-headed stubbornness, not rethink the issue. The president gave Shinseki a potential face-saving way out when he "asked" the Pentagon to review the decision. The Army could have said that, after further review and consideration, the decision to issue black berets would be reconsidered and postponed. The matter could then be quietly dropped. But the general did not recognize the right answer when it was handed to him. Gen Shinseki chose, instead, to dig in his heels.

This obstinate behavior has had the reverse effect to what Gen Shinseki forwarded as his reason to adopt the new headgear. The idea was to improve Army morale by making everyone feel special. Instead, the general's edict has seriously undermined the morale of the Army's elite fighting units, and has done nothing to improve attitudes among regular soldiers.

The Army for the 21st Century is off to a rocky start. General Shinseki's arrogance and belligerence have seriously damaged his credibility and leadership ability. He has shown that he has lost touch with the real soldiers that he purportedly leads. It is time for him to step down. If he won't go voluntarily, the Commander-in-Chief should show him the door.

Charles Bloomer is a Senior Writer for Enter Stage Right. He can be contacted at (c) 2001 Charles Bloomer

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