First Rule of Combat: Always Look Cool

Official disclaimer: nothing in this post reflects the views of the Department of Defense, the Army, the Marines, etc. This is only the unofficially terrible, wrong and poorly written opinion of one person who happened to have served at some point since 9/11. You have been warned.

Image is everything in the Army, and it would blow your mind if you knew the sheer amount of time soldiers waste on trying to figure out what they can or cannot do in regards to appearance. When I was in Afghanistan, a no-shit combat zone you would recall, it became a gigantic issue whether or not the first generation of Nike combat boots were still authorized. Apparently they were not, something to do with the material not being fire-proof enough, so you had NCOs literally making soldiers take off their boots in the middle of a general’s headquarters to check if they had on the offending version. It was insane. We waste a shitload of time on this frivolous bullshit.

In April, the Army released its revision to Army Regulation (AR) 670-1, which governs uniform wear and appearance standards for soldiers. This revision was well overdue, as over the last decade the Army had been issuing individual messages governing changing appearance standards and there was no single authoritative resource on the subject. One had to pull up countless All Army Activity (ALARACT) messages just to figure out how to wear the Army Combat Uniform, or if a certain combat patch was authorized, among other useless shit. Now that there is one AR covering it all and more, the problem is solved, right? Ha-ha-ha – if you guessed “yes,” you were wrong.

Part of the problem stems from the effort to counteract low recruitment numbers during the particularly bloody periods of the wars, when the Army loosened appearance standards to get their numbers up. Historically, if you had tattoos above the neck and on the hands, you could not enlist, the idea being no tattoos should be visible while a soldier is in their dress uniform (think business suit). But the Army granted waivers for this to improve recruiting numbers. It was also loathe to mustering soldiers out for appearance violations during this period for the same reason, so hair styles not officially authorized were allowed to flourish unimpeded. I will not even attempt to get into the massive (LOL) problem of allowing blatantly overweight soldiers to continue service in obvious violation of the regulations, as we don’t have that kind of time.

Given that Iraq is done (maybe not?) and Afghanistan is about to be done (kind of?) and the Army’s end-strength is being cut to adjust for constricting budgets, the Army is once again tightening up appearance standards. Though pitched as a return to basic discipline, stricter appearance standards will help the Army get rid of some of its less desirable folks, assisting its ease into the more fiscally disciplined future. As you can imagine, those being affected by the new standards are not happy about this. A soldier accustomed to having whatever hairdo or tattoos they want is not going to sit idly by as the Army retroactively makes them a shit-bag.

Without going into too much tedious detail, the new tattoo rules outlaw leg and arm sleeves, which is new, as well as going back to the old no-tats-on-the-hands-and-neck standard. There are size restrictions on allowable tattoos below the knees and elbows, and commanders were directed to capture evidence of any tattoos in these areas in order to grandfather in currently serving soldiers. One element of the new tattoo policy is that if you are an enlisted soldier and have a leg or arm sleeve tattoo, you are banned from transitioning to warrant or commissioned officer. An enlisted soldier with the Georgia Army National Guard who has offending tattoos and planned on becoming an aviation warrant officer, until the new regulation barred him, filed a lawsuit challenging the policy. His position is that this ban violates laws against making actions retroactively illegal and asked for a $100 million settlement.

Not being a lawyer or scholar of any sort, obviously, I cannot say with certainty what legal standing this soldier has. But I can comment on the philosophical and cultural aspects of his claims and the efficacy and fairness of the new policy. Can is not the same as should, but this is still happening.

The Army has every right to determine what appearance it wants from its soldiers, regardless of how draconian or arbitrary it may seem. This National Guard soldier likely does not have any claim to being retroactively punished as he is able to continue his service; only his future plans have been negatively affected. That really is too bad, but he is probably SOL. As for his $100 million claim, I think that was more to get the Army’s and the media’s attention as it is a patently ridiculous sum – but it worked. Anyway, while we have determined that the new tattoo policy is probably entirely legal, is it philosophically offensive? What purpose is really served by banning sleeves besides a measure to force people out of the service?

Tattoos have long been a part of military culture. In recent years, as tattoos have become more accepted by the general public, the trend has been reflected in the Army as well. Soldiers lacking the freedom to dress and wear their hair as they pleased could use tattoos to express themselves, as long as the tattoos were not racist, sexist, etc. No swastikas or tits on this army, no sir. This left soldiers much latitude to get the tattoos that they wanted. Tattoos flourished in the Army, especially in combat arms units. It was not uncommon to see soldiers in combat units with major tattoos such as full chest pieces and sleeves of all sorts, not to mention the significant number of troops who have at least one tattoo, even if not large or noticeable.

The Army’s explanation for restrictions on tattoos visible below the elbows and knees is that the Army needs to maintain an image of professionalism, and these tattoos detract from this image. What the Army is saying is that the appearance of a soldier is as important to the profession as physical fitness or proficiency with a firearm. The Army is very tied up in image. Senior NCOs make their living ensuring all the soldiers in their unit have their boots and sleeves bloused the same way. The concept, as explained when questioned by someone who thinks this is a gigantic waste of time (usually a junior officer), is that the Army cannot trust a soldier to be disciplined on the important stuff if they do not demonstrate discipline in appearance.


I do not subscribe to the “appearance = discipline” argument for a few reasons. One, the most trusted, senior, combat effective units in the Army are the special operations forces. These units typically have great leeway in determining what appearance standards to apply to their soldiers, and these soldiers typically have great personal choice in determining what they wear and how they cut their hair. Special Forces focus on the critical combat skills of their soldiers, not appearance. Function, not form, is the guiding principle for the most elite Army forces. Why not apply this standard to line units within reason, say for tattoos, as they do not affect combat capabilities? Two, tattoos do not take away from combat effectiveness. Line units in the field would not expose their forearms or lower legs anyways, and since the adoption of the Army Combat Uniform, soldiers are no longer allowed to roll up their sleeves. So there is literally no way that a soldier’s sleeve tattoo would be seen by anyone outside the unit unless he is wearing his physical fitness uniform or his class-B dress uniform with short-sleeve dress shirt.

Most Army bases already restrict the wear of the physical fitness uniform off-post, so the only people able to see sleeve tattoos are on base; people affiliated with the military who already are more likely to accept tattoos as normal. The class-B uniform with short sleeve shirt is a little trickier. This configuration is used in high level commands and headquarters, and serves as a bridge between the utilitarian combat uniform and the full, formal dress uniform. If visible tattoos are truly unprofessional, a simple solution would be to mandate the wear of the long sleeve dress shirt with the class-B uniform for those with qualifying ink. Problem solved.

Rules mandating a different dress shirt depending on tattoo status would be easy to make and enforce. Army senior NCOs already waste most of their time micromanaging the uniforms of their soldiers, so one more restriction would make their day. Instead, what the ban implies is that senior Army leadership is just uncomfortable with tattoos in general, like most of the baby-boom generation. They just don’t see why these young kids even need to get these crazy tattoos in the first place, so they banned them under the guise of professionalism, even though your average citizen will never see a uniformed trooper’s bare lower legs or arms outside of an Army base. This is a typically reactionary response by a consistently reactionary organization and was entirely arbitrary, like most of the decisions the Army makes, but fully within its purview. No matter how arbitrary and annoying, soldiers have to accept the Army’s regulations.

The new hair standards are a little more contentious than those for tattoos, as they appear to single out hair styles preferred by black females. The new rules ban twists, dreads and more than three braids for females of any racial background, but it is obvious who they are intended to reign in. It didn’t help that all of the photos in the Army’s official explainer slideshow (of course they used a fucking PowerPoint) were of black women demonstrating the unauthorized ‘dos. They also banned mohawks, monk-style cuts, the island and a few other male haircuts favored mostly by old, white senior NCOs, so the regulation is not discriminatory on its face. However, given the widespread adoption of questionable hair styles by black female soldiers, more of them were affected than were crusty Sergeants Major who like to rock aggressive high-and-tights for no good reason.

Going to a large Reserve Center on a drill weekend in a majority black area is like attending a Black Hair Magazine convention. I have seen black women with Marge Simpson-style beehives of red fake hair, shaved bleached blond hair, Coolio-braids, helmet-heads, rat-nests and the like. Any hair style found in the black female community finds its way into the Army, and if you’re a leader in a unit with black females, it was in your best interest to not enforce the Army hair standard if you want to keep your job. Just because leaders in a specific Army unit do not enforce a standard, does not mean that it doesn’t exist. But this is what the Army has allowed to happen in the last decade, especially in the reserves: a systematic breakdown in basic soldier discipline regarding physical fitness and appearance leading to a perceived tolerance for ethnic hairdos that blatantly violate the regulation, but are allowed to flourish because leaders are incompetent and afraid that they will get an Equal Opportunity complaint filed against them, and to keep up retention.

I do not personally care for many of the Army’s appearance standards and think they are arbitrary, like the new tattoo requirements, but every soldier volunteers to serve in the Army and part of that service is sacrificing the ability to make some decisions regarding personal appearance. It is not that hard of a concept – regardless of your race, ethnicity, gender or religion, a soldier has to follow the Army’s regulations on appearance. We are all green first. It is immaterial that one comes from a cultural background that expresses itself through creative hair-styling; when you put on that uniform you are a soldier first and must look like what the Army has decreed a soldier must look like. It is irrelevant that you were allowed to get away with wearing your hair in unauthorized configurations for the last ten years because you had unit leaders who were more afraid of getting an Equal Opportunity complaint or not meeting their retention goals than of not enforcing the standard – if you are a soldier you have got to look the part.

Too bad a bunch of out of touch, white baby-boomers get to decide what looking the part means. I have seen some of the most wild and god-awful hairdos on black female NCOs. And you know what that silly hairdo had to do with their discipline or ability to do their Army job? Not a fucking thing. No correlation whatsoever between hairstyle and ability. Just like a sergeant having two full sleeves of tattoos (non-offensive, of course) has nothing to do with his or her ability to shoot an assault rifle and take and hold ground while working as a member of a fire team. Perhaps one day, maybe 30 years from now, when an enterprising, tattooed NCO becomes Sergeant Major of the Army and a hip, millennial officer becomes Chief of Staff, the organization as a whole will come to the realization that there is no correlation between how you look and how you fight. Sans fatties, of course. Because have some self respect, right?

Dennis Hatherly

(Politics and Military)


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