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Of Berets and Turbans

12:01 PM, Nov 11, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
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Elaine Donnelly at NRO goes overboard in castigating the Army for allowing a Sikh doctor (and potentially a Sikh dentist) to retain the beards and turbans their faith requires of them. Donnelly (whose work I usually admire) compares this dispensation to the Army's deliberately turning a blind eye to the blatant jihadism of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. The two are in no way comparable. The latter was an egregious dereliction of duty on the part of the authorities, while the former is merely bureaucratic nitpicking of the sort that Paul Fussell characterized so accurately as "chickenshit."

Donnelly should consider that the Sikhs have a long and distinguished history of military service in the British Indian Army. Sikh regiments were not only unfailingly loyal (once the British had conquered the Sikhs, a feat that required two wars between 1845 and 1849) but were usually in the forefront of the battle. Only the Gurkhas equal or exceed the military reputation of the Sikhs. Throughout their service to the Raj, which ended only with Indian independence, the Sikhs were allowed to retain their beards and distinctive headwear. It did not affect their performance in combat; rather, it was a mark of distinction, of regimental loyalty and unit cohesion--the intangible moral factors that lead to high combat effectiveness.

Unfortunately, the United States Army has a tin ear when it comes to such matters. Take, for example, a simple matter such as headgear. Up through the tenure of General Eric Shinseki as Army Chief of Staff, only elite units were permitted to wear a beret--a privilege earned in blood. The Army Rangers wore a black beret, the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st airborne wore maroon, and the Special Forces wore the famous green beret. In an effort to "transform" the Army and make it more "expeditionary oriented," Shinseki directed all troops to begin wearing the black beret. That's right--we'll turn the Army into a lean, mean, fighting machine by making all the troops wear Monica Lewinski's hat. It was a fitting gesture for the Clinton era in military affairs. The Rangers, of course, were outraged--a black beret means something, just as the maroon beret and jump boots mean something to paratroops, and the green beret to the Special Forces. And now a bunch of fat, sloppy REMFs were wearing it and walking around with Ranger swagger. As for the paratroops and the Special Forces, well, they didn't want to be mistaken for Rangers, either. There was pretty close to a full blown headgear rebellion that was squelched only when the Army relented and allowed the Special Forces and Airborne to retain their distinctive colors. As for the poor Rangers, they were given a rather washed-out looking tan beret, and still haven't gotten over it.

The point is seemingly minor matters such as headgear and footwear matter when it comes to morale, unit cohesion and combat effectiveness. These small marks of individuality, especially when earned, allows the soldier to gain pride in himself and his unit. It makes him part of a larger tradition, not just a cog in the Big Green Machine, and should be encouraged, not suppressed. A truly clever Army would not try to make Sikhs shave their beards and discard their turbans, but would go so far as make them special marks of distinction. Tap into the Sikh community, form Sikh platoons, companies and battalions wearing the traditional Sikh uniform. I wager the Sikhs will serve the United States with the same zeal and loyalty they showed to the British Raj.

And while we are on that subject, I understand that there are a great many under-employed Gurkha soldiers now that the British army is cutting back once again. An offer of citizenship in return for service might get a very favorable response from some of the best soldiers in the world.