US medic who would not wear the blue beret goes on trial

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An American soldier went on trial yesterday at a US army base in Germany for refusing to wear the United Nations blue beret, an offence which has rekindled debate at home about the country's global role.

Michael New, 22, an army medic, is accused of "refusing a legal order" but the defence and their conservative allies argue that it is US participation in peace-keeping missions that should be in the dock.

His gesture, the first of its kind in the US army, has become a cause celebre, rallying patriotic right-wingers against President Bill Clinton's policy in former Yugoslavia.

Mr New refused to don the blue headgear and epaulettes on 10 October when his unit in southern Germany was ordered to join a UN peace-keeping mission in Macedonia.

He argued that as he had sworn an oath of allegiance to the US, wearing another uniform would be disloyal.

"It is not that he didn't want to go to war with his unit," Colonel Henry Hamilton, who heads Mr New's lawyers, told the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. "The issue is, is he going to go as an army soldier or as a minion of the UN?"

His "heroic" deed captured the imagination of the American right. In Texas, Mr New's home state, citizens staged demonstrations in support of the medic. Mark Gilman, a Houston talk-show host who addressed the rally in Conroe, the soldier's home town, called Michael New "a hero".

The tide of protest rapidly swept into Washington. Last month 43 Congressmen signed a letter to Mr Clinton demanding "a full legal and constitutional analysis of the justification of your orders placing members of the United States Armed Forces under the command of foreign United Nations officers".

Senior Republican Congressmen have also introduced legislation to prohibit a president from ordering US troops to wear UN insignia. "A soldier's oath is to the US Constitution, not to the UN Charter," said Tom DeLay, who tabled the motion.

"Forcing soldiers to wear the uniform of the United Nations effectively asks the soldier to serve another power. No American soldier should be put in Michael New's position - forced to choose allegiances between the United States and the United Nations."

In the murky world of peace-keeping, with its deliberately fudged chain of command, such an interpretation would virtually exclude the US from a future role. With Washington poised to send thousands of troops into the former Yugoslavia, the proposed legislation could deal US diplomacy a devastating blow.

Mr New stood impassively during yesterday's arraignment proceedings near the southern German city of Wurzburg. He did not enter a plea, and there will be a second hearing to set the date of the court-martial, expected to be held in January. The medic, who was described by his commanding officer as a good soldier, does not have much to fear from the trial's outcome.

"We're not going to hang him, or anything like that," a US army source said. His most likely punishment is dishonourable discharge, and a hero's welcome back home in Texas.