Which is "proper" or preferred by these men when referring to them, "Green Beret" or "Special Forces"?
It is a very insightful question, and the answer is long & complex. Each one of the following paragraphs is the subject of at least a chapter-long essay; but it is my tribe, and I am the teller of the tale, so here goes:
As I recall, the "Green Berets" label became popular during the sixties, with the song, the book and the movie:
The green beret itself, as a piece of headgear for elite forces, dates to WWII and the French Underground. The Royal Marine Commandos were already wearing it, and it was picked up by the OSS Jedburghs (direct predecessors of modern day US Army Special Forces).
45 Royal Marine Commando, WWII
I don’t know exactly when French Foreign Legion paratroopers started wearing green berets - sometime after WWII when they acquired Airborne capability within the French forces, and before Dien Bien Phu - where they wore the green beret in combat.
Foreign Legion Soldiers in Algiers, 1957
Beret of the 2° Regt Etrangere Parachutiste (French Foreign Legion)
Early U.S. Army Special Forces in Europe adopted the beret as an unofficial headgear, worn only in the field. By the time of General William Yarborough’s famous First Formation in front of John F. Kennedy the beret was being worn openly (and unofficially) on post at Fort Bragg by Special Forces personnel.
President Kennedy granted official recognition & Presidential award of the headgear.
Then came the song, the book, and the movie, and from that point we were designated “Green Berets” in the popular lexicon.
Then something happened in the late 70s / early 80s. Everyone knows the Army can ruin a wet dream. The beret was officially sanctioned by no less than Presidential Executive Order, and so the Army, in it’s wisdom, determined that EVERYONE assigned to a Special Forces unit should wear the uniform (to include distinctive headgear) of that unit. Hence the phenomenon of pregnant female office clerks seen walking around Fort Bragg wearing green berets.
This sacrilege was finally put to rest when Special Forces became it’s own branch, MOS; 18-series Career Management Field. Nowadays only Special Forces qualified personnel wear the green beret; non-SF qual’d personnel assigned to Special Forces wear maroon berets (indicating airborne unit status).
For the longest time during the 70s and 80s it was almost taboo amongst Special Forces soldiers to refer to ourselves as “Green Berets”. This was how Hollywood described us, and of course there was that whole thing about the pregnant personnel clerk walking around the PX at Bragg wearing a green beret. We were and ARE Special Forces soldiers. Likewise, there is no such thing as “Navy Special Forces” or “Air Force Special Forces”. These units are designated “Special Operations Forces” (SEALs are Navy SOF, Para-Rescue are AF SOF, etc) to differentiate from the “Special Forces” designation, which has belonged to the Army since World War II.
World War II-era jump wings of the OSS (Office of Special Services)
Nowadays however a certain pride and ownership has come of the label “Green Beret” and we once again refer to ourselves as “The Green Berets”. You will see it on web sites, chatrooms, certain YouTube clips, etc. We are still not quite yet comfortable with the monicker, given the Hollywood over-usage in the past, but I have heard the term used even in Tactical Operations Centers (TOCs) and Joint Operations Centers (JOCs) by Special Forces soldiers, when discussing order of battle, to differentiate between Special Forces soldiers out there on the battlefield and other Special Operations Soldiers (Rangers are Army SOF, Marine Force Recon are MARSOF, etc).
Of course, I am (semi) retired now – I refer to myself as EX-Special Forces (“ex;” being Latin for “out of”) but NEVER “former” Special Forces; on the grounds that there is no such thing as a “former” Special Forces soldier (with the possible exception of the guys drummed out in disgrace – I’ve seen a few of those). I work and hang out with a number of colleagues from my former life, and recently a retired Sergeant Major said to me (in front of everyone), “You’re a Green Beret, Linnane – get yerself out there and KICK SOME ASS ! ! !”
Hope this answers your question for now . . . SEAN LINNANE SENDS
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