Small Wars Journal

The Importance of the Green Beret as a Symbol

Sun, 10/29/2017 - 4:11pm

The Importance of the Green Beret as a Symbol

Jeffrey Hasler

Words matter. Symbols matter.

The issue - at least right now - is not the utility of units like the new Security Force Assistance Brigades’ (SFAB) mission overlap or lack thereof, or how Special Forces (SF) interact with them. The issue now is the Army’s decision to model the SFABs’ symbology so closely to that of SF’s. Did those responsible not understand the effect of what they were doing? Was it incompetence? I doubt it. I think our leaders are intelligent and know what they are doing. Could it be the Army sees no meaningful difference between SF and SFAB? Even the Army Chief of Staff said SFABs are not SF. Well then, this despicable decision can only be explained by a conscious decision to dilute the distinctiveness of the green beret as a SF symbol.

In some sense, any beret is just an impractical piece of felt. Many of us would have sought out SF and done the job without a beret - or uniform for that matter.

However, the importance of the green beret is in what it symbolizes - to distinguish and honor a unit and the men purpose-built to fight a “new [sic] kind of war, ancient in its origins....” as articulated by President John F. Kennedy at the height of the Cold War. We were created to conduct unconventional warfare (UW); a dangerous, difficult, unusual and strategically important mission which puts a premium on paratrooper-level bravery, demands high standards of professionalism and self-reliance beyond supply and command chains deep behind enemy lines for the duration, and requires farm-boy, hood and hunter intelligence that fully grasps the operational value of the wretched in the hinterlands and the neglected precincts of the human hive. It requires men who understand the noble value of “resistance” and are assessed, selected, trained and equipped to organize, advise and when necessary to lead such a resistance.

SF is not designed for foreign internal defense (FID) even though it is one of its many core missions and SF does it all the time all over the Earth. SF was designed for UW. Let the big Army do the 97% of FID appropriate to other big armies. Let SF do FID only when appropriate and always, always with the idea of perfecting the skills the UW resistance advisor’s calling requires.

Finally, it is indeed a calling. I am proud to have been a Soldier in the US Army. I am proud to stand next to all my fellow Soldiers and veterans to honor our flag and protect our constitution. Regardless of our job, we all stand together to do that. Moreover, I thank every cook, mechanic, truck driver, computer technician and faceless leader for their service. Our Nation and our Army need you. I sincerely honor your commitment and your contributions to both.

However, just as there is a recognized difference between the pilot and the mechanic, between the surgeon and the nurse, between the general and the private, there is an even greater distinction between those who volunteer to go behind enemy lines alone or with a small handful of brothers to organize and lead men and women in desperate struggles for political freedom.

The ghosts of Pineland[1] everywhere-man-may-yet-tread cry out: “May men shame and may God damn those who do not respect the difference.”

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of Army Special Operations Command, US Special Operations Command or the US Army.

End Note

[1] Pineland is a fictitious country located in North Carolina, developed by the United States Army Special Forces Command to train Special Forces, Psyops and Civil Affairs in unconventional warfare.


About the Author(s)

Jeffrey Hasler is a 28-year veteran of Army Special Forces with most of his career focused on the Pacific Command area of responsibility and greater Eurasia. He is a graduate of Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana; the Defense Language Institute (Mandarin Chinese) and the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey California; and has studied at the Beijing Institute for Economic Management Cadre, Beijing PRC. The opinions here are his own and do not represent Army Special Operations, US Special Operations or the US Army.


Outlaw 09

Wed, 11/01/2017 - 11:49am

An interesting article BUT again frm Big Army perspective and a tad on the disinformation side.

Tabs and Badges and Berets, Oh My! The Big Distraction the Army’s New Advisory Unit Really Didn’t Need…

In the article a General refers to the fact that the tab, flash and unit symbol was built to reflect the role of MACV in VN, BUT he seemed to not understand that SOG was also MACV-SOG and a number of the other SF projects also fell MACV WHICH you cannot define as straight forward FID ops and the SF CIDG program actually also fell under MACV which was a form of combat oriented/focused FID which if I am correct that is not the current mission set for this FID.

He seems to not have understood the depth of how much CIA was embedded in MACV.

Also and this is a major big army blunder the same individual refers to the Recondo school, which was the first at all and it was set up by SF to train recon types for all of VN and especially for MACV SOG, while yes there were others stateside there was only one in VN and is was run by US SF not big army.

Most of the combat divisions in VN had their own LLRP training programs while SF tended to train strictly the projects, B55 Mike Force and others foreign SF types.

I got roped in for the tranining in typical SF fashion, when I arrived in country everyone had to go thru Hon Tra island training and SF HQs was sly they would say hey take Recondo training and you side step Hon Tra, and being young and aggressive we all tended to jump on it.

So this General needs to revisit his VN history a little more.

J Harlan

Wed, 11/01/2017 - 6:55pm

So people, who when given the choice will wear beards, a mix of civilian and military gear and various sports teams ball caps, are upset because someone else has a beret almost the same color? Shouldn't that be item 176 in the list of things for the US military to be worried about?

Now for the FID types "insta-traditions"? If you want to go that road may I suggest telling the troops that the VC called them "The Grey Devils" (because that was the color of 1911s that were the "most feared weapon in the Mekong Delta").

Bill M.

Tue, 10/31/2017 - 1:57pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Thanks for posting the link Bill, that article reflects the comments of a true leader and the Army is lucky to have him. It certainly alleviates my concerns, but I'll make one light jab back the CG in fun. Olive brown? Come on General, I'm not a painter, but I don't think there is such a thing as olive brown, olive red, or olive yellow, but there is an olive green.


Mon, 10/30/2017 - 6:48pm

I was in the 82nd when this everybody gets a beret nonsense started. It was wrong then and it is wrong now.

When I first got to the 82nd we wore the traditional garrison cap with the parachute/glider patch on one side. Then they decided we would wear maroon berets! which we had to buy!

Only Green Berets should wear them! But this does bring to light a bigger issue. Our growing Commie Army engaged in class warfare with berets and flashes and badges and tabs and other useless PC BS to cover up incompetence and persistent inability to create and execute competent Strategies to defeat our ever growing list of opponents.

Except for the Green Berets everyone else should go back to wearing the WW2 uniform commonly called pinks and greens. The uniform of winners not PC cadets and closet Commies.

All The Way!

Outlaw 09

Mon, 10/30/2017 - 5:00am

Sorry as a member of the old SF, I joined in 66 and I have a far different take, this is the continuance of the big army evidently still trying to dismiss SF into the corner.

It started in VN in 68 in a big way, continued into the 70s when big army cut SF from 13K to barely 2.5K

And it continues with this move, there should never be a tab for FID in the real army as that is what they do, why a beret, they are big army regulars already with a beret, nothing is "special in their training" as all they are doing is the normal skill sets that they have normally in big army. Their not airborne, not scuba, not light fighters, not mountain fighters., not jungle fighters, not free fall, so why the tab for doing their jobs they were trained for in the first place, come on get real.

Those of us that got the beret in 66 knew what we were getting into, knew the history of Kennedy in approving it and for those of us lucky enough to be assigned to a unit with a lot of the original founders of SF who worn no beret for yrs, and even when we could not state we were SF, the beret held a high level of significance to us during that phase of assignments and when we came back into a SF unit.

In VN when you could not wear it based on your assignment ie SOG or the special projects but you worn it inside your compounds when you came back in.

So now enters a new unit with a really old mission set that is suppose to what look and feel like what?, with a green beret and a tab that really says nothing more than you are really just regular army with a tab.

So what is actually so special about being in the regular army with regular army skill sets, so when they walk into bar wearing their beret and tab and they run into SOF what do you expect the comments to be?

AND now they use a word combination earned by the highest decorated unit in the history of the US Army, really sad state of affairs inside big army, but they have been driving for their own "elite unit" since the creation of SF.

Seems they now have it.

Big army has never stopped trying to dismiss SF. That the SOF community accepted this move is actually telling in many ways.

I first read about this "olive drab/greenish" SFAB beret thing a couple of days ago. I first saw the SFAB unit patch a few weeks ago. Both symbols seem to indicate a desire (by the Army CoS?) to align the SFABs closely to SF which I had hoped would not happen.

If Army SF are deliberately designed & trained to operate as small teams of experts far behind enemy lines to raise & employ guerilla forces (I think this is still their fundamental purpose), and SFABs are (I think) designed & trained to advise & assist conventional military (and police?) forces while NOT behind enemy lines, I'd think that the-powers-that-be would want to highlight those distinctions instead of trying to shove the two together.

Dave, you're right, the beret didn't symbolize SF until a decade after SF was formed. I recall a SF Sergeant Major (Vietnam era) who believed three types of people joined Special Forces: 1) the profilers who wanted to parade around post with their beret; and 3) and most professional soldiers in the Army (I intentionally left out the second reason).

On one hand, there is some truth to that view, but those that stay in SF generally have a passion for the mission. Ever since the SGM told me that, I wondered if SF would be better or worse off without the beret? SF can work in the shadows more effectively when we don't reflect too much light, and there are a number of specialized units that do so without public symbols of excellence. Whether they are in the paramilitary or more specialized military units, they do the mission with no or little fanfare. The symbolism and associated pride is internal to their organizations.

On the other hand, since we passed that symbolic fashion decision a few decades ago, the focus now must be on the associated symbolism, and what the symbolic fashion decision for the SFAB portends. The underlying issue is that Army leadership apparently sees parallels between the emerging SFAB and SF based the common theme of advising and training. This reflects deeply flawed thinking on the Army's part that could have detrimental effects on the future employment of SF and the SFAB if they are viewed as interchangeable.

SF is much, much more than trainers and advisors, and the UW mission is only part of the so much more. The effects an ODA can generate on the ground will generally far exceed the SFAB. The wide range of SF skill sets, UW training, and professional culture engrains a deep understanding of irregular warfare throughout the regiment. This results in the ODA providing the Geographical Combatant Commander with a far greater range of options and effects generation than a SFAB can produce.

To me, the decision by Army leadership to give SFAB members an olive green beret and a tab similar to the SF tab signals that Army leadership doesn't understand the full shaping and combat value that SF can bring to an operation. They tend to view SF only as advisors and commandos, versus a unique organization that can leverage the indigenous population and develop deep understanding of the local environment that is relevant to the mission. I doubt that SF will ever be employed to it full potential unless we form another OSS like organization that doesn't pull SF entirely out of the Army, but results in an operational level headquarters that actually understands the full spectrum of special warfare. We do not have that with SOCOM unfortunately.

To clarify, I'm a supporter of the SFAB concept, and do not seek to perpetuate the unhelpful myth of elitism. We have a professional army now, many of the NCOs and officers in combat arms are elite in their own right compared to the vast majority of armies in the world. The main point is that the green beret and SF tab symbolize something different than the role of the SFAB. Jeff prefers to use UW, and historically he is correct. I prefer to use view as SF as providing a wider range of unconventional options, that include UW.

Dave Maxwell

Sun, 10/29/2017 - 6:50pm

We can always count on Jeff Hasler to have pithy and eloquent commentary especially when it comes to things like unconventional warfare for which the rifle green Green Beret stands.

While the issue of the SFABs receiving the olive green beret, a patch appears to be a post modern design of the Special Forces patch, a combat advisor tab, and borrowing the nickname of the 5th Special Forces group, "The Legion," is blowing up military related social media sites I think it is interesting and important to recall some SF history for comparison. The Green Beret was not adopted until some 10 years after Special Forces was established and then against the will of the Army leadership and only by authorization of President Kennedy. The important thing was that SF had already proven itself in combat and the President himself recognized the importance and value of SF. Second, the Special Forces Tab (the "long tab") was not developed and authorized for wear until 1983 some 31 years after the establishment of SF.

I think the concept of the SFAB has merit but I wonder if the olive green beret, the tab, the patch, and the nickname given upon establishment of the organization will have the same effect on its members that earning the rifle green Green Beret and the long tab has on members of the Special Forces Regiment. Will those symbols have the desired effect on the members of the SFAB or will this controversy at the very beginning of the organization undermine the purpose and intent and legitimacy of those symbols? How are the members of the unit going to feel about the "cultural appropriation" of another organizations symbols (despite the modifications so they are not identical - except for The Legion nickname)