Best Defense

Army uniform: The American people want to know if you can defeat the enemy, not order mapo doufu in the right dialect

Two things about BG Field’s essay.



By Robert Goldich
Best Defense guest respondent

Two things about BG Field’s essay:

1. It seems to me that the current Army uniform does much of what she says it doesn’t. It shows a variety of skills and, at least roughly, whether the soldier has deployed and been in combat, with a special nod to the CIB.

2. Unfortunately, though, I think that her broader point about the kind of things that the uniform should show displays the same kind of intra-service, intra-military insularity she decries. I can think of nothing that would be more likely to subject the Army uniform, and hence the Army, to sarcastic ridicule from the broader public, including informed laypeople and veterans, than her suggestion that the uniform should indicate things like “speaking Chinese” and “understanding State’s role.” The American people, correctly, realize that the primary, overwhelming characteristic of the Army is that it engages in combat — that it fights, kills, maims, and hurts the enemies of the United States on land. Of course, throughout its history the Army has done many other things, but these other things have either supported the combat role or, if they have not supported the latter, the Army is good at them because it has to meet the high standards of competence and courage that combat demands. Placing skills that are useful, but essentially adaptation of things that civilians and civilian society does, on the uniform will generate contempt from the public. They will think that the Army is trying to downplay, or evade, or run away from, the centrality of organized violence as its mission. A good example of this comes not from the Army, but the Air Force. Many people will remember the attempt of then CSAF General Tony McPeak to give the Air Force a new uniform that most airmen hated, because it made them look more like airline crews, or, more damningly, hospitality-industry workers of various kinds. A few days after he took office, McPeak’s successor, Gen. Ron Fogleman, canned the Fly the Friendly Skies uniform, to the almost unanimous relief of airmen.

The military uniform, like the military itself, does not belong to itself, but to the American people, and their perceptions of what the uniform shows are very important. At least as important as internal service matters.

Robert L. Goldich retired from the Congressional Research Service in 2005 as its senior military manpower analyst. Currently he is drafting a book on the history of conscription.

Photo credit: Laitr Keiows/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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