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Our Fashion Conscious Army: Order, Discipline, and Good Looks

Rule #1- Always know where you are.
Rule #2- Always look good.
Rule #3- If you don’t know where you are, still look good.
    - Special Forces Joke

The US Army is the most fashion conscious organization on the planet. Throughout the ages the armies of the world have cared about style--think khakis, camouflage pants, the blazer, the beret, the peacoat, and the trench coat--but I think the US Army takes it to a new level.

The US Army doesn’t abide by “modern” fashion sense; it definitely adheres to its own code though. Your boots must have the laces tucked in, with the pants bloused. If your boots happen to be black leather, shine them every night for an hour. Berets will be cared for meticulously, shaved and shaped to perfection. Your hair will not touch your ears nor grow over two inches in length; a clean shaved face will lead to victory. Most importantly, everyone should where the same uniform, boots, ruck sack, and equipment, no matter personal preference.

Uniformity (in dress) will yield victory.

Failure to adhere to these standards will be noticed. I"m pretty sure a Sergeant Major's only job is enforcing these standards. Rolled up sleeves? He’ll catch that. Missing badges on an ACU? He’ll spot that. Non-standard boots? Oh yeah, you’ll catch hell for that. I've joked before that to graduate the Sergeant Major's Academy, the students have to do an inspection of a lieutenant with nine uniform mistakes and spot them all in thirty seconds or less. It's like a JMPI but for uniforms.

The reason for this is that a combat unit needs discipline. Forcing soldiers to meticulously care for their uniforms--shining boots, shaving berets--teaches them the discipline to do what they are told. I agree with enforcing discipline: war is chaos, discipline is the only way to overcome that chaos.

Unfortunately, uniformity (in dress) is not discipline.

The Armies that deployed to both Afghanistan in 2002 and that deployed to Iraq in 2003 were the most uniformed service we have ever had. Yet we still struggle in Afghanistan and it took until 2007 to learn the right way to win in Iraq.

Our enemies don’t have uniformity. But they have discipline. A discipline forged in the fire of constant threat of death.They need unrelenting discipline to stay alive.

I am not the first to gripe about uniforms in the US Army, nor will I be the last. But if we can learn a lesson from the last nine or so years of war, it is that uniformity in dress teaches uniformity in thought. The US Army took years to adapt to the situations on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our uniforms didn't cause this, but our uniformity in thought probably kept change from occurring much earlier.

twelve comments

I don’t know if the Army we deployed in 2001 and 2003 was the most “uniformed” army we ever had, but it certainly was one of the most uniformed. Anyways, I read an interesting quote in “My War” by Andy Rooney:

“The most dreaded event on our training schedule was the full-field inspection in the hot sun on the red clay drill field…You put down your olive drab blanket on the hard clay and laid out on that every single item the Army has issued you, each in its specific sequence…This is how a peacetime Army thinks wars are won.”

Also, if anyone says, “Well, Shining boots it tough. It builds discipline and toughness” So is learning Urdu, but only one of those activities will help win the war.

Hey, check out the book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence" by Norman Dixon, specifically the chapter entitled “On Bullshit”. Great read re: this topic.

I’m going to check out my local library right now, that book sounds awesome.

Not sure how easy that is to find…I got a copy off of Amazon for relatively cheap.

I always thought the reason for the uniformity was less for the discipline…discipline is more the “lay out all of your possesssions on a blanket in just the right way” sort of stuff.
Uniformity in looks, to me, a way to take away identity. It’s a way to forget folks who’ve died and the such. “Adam? What’d he look like?” “You know, short hair…clean-shaven…dressed in green.”

That’s why we lost Nam. Lax dress code. Think every Vietnam movie: bandanas, unshaven faces, sleeveless shirts, etc.

Actually Matty P, Mc and I talked about that last night, that’s why the Army instituted such rigorous dress code stipulations, because of Nam.

@ AJK – I agree uniformity of dress is meant to take away personal identity, at least part of it. I guess my question is why you would someone want to do that?

I mean I wasn’t in the Army when they implemented much stricter dress codes, I have just seen that they aren’t necessary. Our force now have different types of ACUs (including the combat shirt that is amazing), different rack systems, different ruck sacks, and different things on their rifles. So it feels to me like the uniformity is for discipline, but I can see the anonymity thing as a factor. Being one part of a larger whole is good for morale. Bad for long term effectiveness, but good for morale.

Fashion Conscious? The Army that issued me brown tighties and PT shorts about 5 sizes to small? Its funny you gave a special forces qoute, there a lot of people in normal units who want to go to Special Forces just so that they don´t have to cut their hair.

About discipline though, I think I´ve said it before, I don´t think the US military needs more discipline, but rather more professionalism.

In a high intensity WWI type of situation yes discipline is essential to keep soldiers functioning in a high stress situation. In a counter insurgency what is needed from soldiers isn´t just obedient robots but self reliant, flexible, observational, and communicative soldiers who can interact with the local population and pass information up the chain of command without having to worry about offending someone in their chain of command. That I believe is a problem with the US military when compared to several other NATO militaries. I feel sometimes the US military is overly hierarchial, information never goes up the chain of command, and orders are handed down from people who may not have all the information from their subordinates, and their subordinates are often left with few decisions on how best to carry out their orders to adjust it their operating environment.

Chris, you touch on a lot of great points. Starbuck just posted on office politics in the army, and it hits a lot of the same points you hint at.

Unfortunately, armies aren’t designed to have independent operators. Those only exist in the movies MASH and Stripes.

re: why would someone want to take away identity. It would make them easier to control, I suppose. It’s easier to shoot someone, purportedly, if you dissociate yourself from the act. It’s easier to take losses if the losses don’t have idiosyncratic displays of personality.

There’s a funny story from the making of Black Hawk Down I’m going to steal straight from IMDB: “The film features soldiers wearing helmets with their last names on them. Although this was an inaccuracy, Ridley Scott felt it was necessary to have the helmets to help the audience to distinguish between the characters because they all look the same once the uniforms are on.” So like that movie, where it was tough to distinguish between the characters and thus identify with them, it could follow in life, too.

I’m not and never was in the military, though, so I hesitate to speak and sound callous or misguided or just wrong. Let me know if I am. But it’s my thought that stripping identities give you better soldiers.

@ AJK – Yeah, I agree with that line of reasoning, I’m just not sure I agree the Army should be doing that.

I did think through this dicsusion about Hollywood, and how they work so hard to make soldiers in war films individuals. Maybe that’s one reason why Nam films or WW2 movies do better than today’s films.

Also, this whole identity issue makes me think how hard it is, with all the same haircuts and bdu’s, it is to identify soldiers in pictures.