THE GREEN BERET: It was pure John F. Kennedy, the panache, the unashamed elitism, the cool delight in the dream of beating the enemy at his own game, every soldier a James Bond, knowing six languages and seven ways of killing people barehanded, winning hearts and minds behind the lines.

Yesterday, about 40 Green Berets gathered to lay a wreath on Kennedy's grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

"I was present when he came down to Fort Bragg to hand out the first ones to the Special Forces, 5 Dec. 1961, I believe it was," said retired sergeant first class Richard D. Bishop.

It was a damp, too-warm November morning, with a lot of crows flying over misty glimpses of Washington, across the river. It was the 19th anniversary of Kennedy's death. Bishop had his beret with him.

"We'll be starting in a few minutes," he said, consulting a diving watch whose band also bore a compass. Technology. Savvy. One man against all odds -- Kennedy made these men believe they'd fight the war of tomorrow, and win.

"Fighting soldiers from the sky," sang Barry Sadler in "The Ballad of the Green Berets."

Robin Moore wrote a novel called "The Green Berets," and John Wayne made the movie, but that was in the 1960s, when there were 13,000 men wearing the beret. Now there are about 3,600.

"The song, the movie and the headgear have caused us more grief than good. They set us apart," said Mark Atchison, one of the organizers of the wreath-laying. Now the beret is merely a footnote to a history that turned out very differently than either Kennedy or Special Forces had hoped.

Atchison wore his beret, along with a blue business suit.

Lt. Robert H. Petty, a doctor at Bethesda Naval Hospital, wore his beret and a naval officer's uniform. He'd been a Special Forces medic for 6 1/2 years, before going to medical school.

"John Kennedy is kind of the father figure for the Green Berets," he said, adding, "I'm in the Navy because they made me a good offer, but I wish I was back in Special Forces."

They watched as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, his sister Eunice Shriver, and Ethel Kennedy laid roses on the grave. The senator looked fretful, wistful and preoccupied. He said something that nobody heard -- it was that kind of ceremony, very muted, mouths moving in silence.

George Morton, a retired colonel who joined the Army in 1938, and who went to Vietnam as the first commander of Special Forces in 1961, said later: "Kennedy's concept was to lower the spectrum of violence, to alienate the Vietnamese people from the Viet Cong. We treated it as a problem of human rights, and spreading the wealth. Then Kennedy got assassinated in 1963, and then we moved to massive military intervention."

Could the Green Beret technique have turned the war around without that massive intervention?

"We may not have turned it around, but we would have kept the deaths at a low level, instead of that 58,000," he said, flaring a hand in the direction of the mall, and the new memorial to the Vietnam war dead, most of them ordinary foot soldiers, just a few months' training, no languages, no elitism, faces in a crowd.

A beret -- it was such a wild idea when Kennedy came up with it. Berets, back then, were the little hats that Europeans wore, French artists, say. Very suspicious. That was the whole point. Kennedy legitimized Europe, intellectuals, speaking foreign languages, esteem for brilliance and style after the drab, machine-drive democracy of the '50s, when all of that was suspect. The Special Forces were a new army for a new age. The berets summed it all up.

Yesterday, with the flame flickering over Kennedy's grave and the crowd eyeing the sky for rain, it was an old army and a distant age.

Said Brig. Gen. Joseph C. Lutz, who won his beret in 1964 and now commands the John F. Kennedy Center for Military Assistance at Fort Bragg: " 'Glamor' isn't a word I like -- our soldiers are very professional. I feel that our approach was the correct approach."

Special Forces left Vietnam two years before the last conventional American troops. It had long since ceased to be their war. Their last chance at glory was 12 years ago Sunday night -- the Sontay prison raid, in North Vietnam, a brilliantly executed plan to free American prisoners of war. But when they got there, all the prisoners had been moved.

With two other Green Berets, including F.J. Thompson, a retired colonel who who spent nine years as a POW in Vietnam, Gen. Lutz carried the wreath up to the flame. Nothing was said. The other Green Berets stood for a few moments, then wandered back to their cars, leaving tourists and schoolchildren to wonder at a wreath of green-dyed flowers, bearing the seal of the Special Forces, and trimmed, of course, into the shape of a beret.