Winter is Coming: And so is the Army’s new appearance bible

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This is a piece I wrote back in December for another outlet that never got published. It’s been sitting on my hard drive since then and since Iraq: Ten Years Ago ended (and training picked up) I haven’t been able to write as much. So, here it is.

“The Army is a uniformed service where discipline is judged, in part, by the manner in which a soldier wears a prescribed uniform, as well as by the individual’s personal appearance.” – Chapter 1, AR 670-1

The regulation covering things like haircuts, fingernails, and the way soldiers wear their uniforms is being updated for the first time in almost ten years. For the hundreds of Army regulations in circulation, few are referenced more frequently than Army Regulation 670-1: Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia. It prescribes – in painstaking detail – exactly how each and every item is to be worn and the manner in which soldiers should present themselves in order to project a professional military appearance.

The regulation is thorough and exact. An example, from the section on male haircuts:

“The hair on top of the head must be neatly groomed. The length and bulk of the hair may not be excessive or present a ragged, unkempt, or extreme appearance. The hair must present a tapered appearance. A tapered appearance is one where…”

And it continues on for another 145 words.

The last revision came before the adoption of the much maligned grayish/greenish/blueish Advanced Combat Uniform which blends in well with your grandmother’s couch. The new revision will include the proper wear and appearance of the ACU as well as other pieces of clothing that have been issued since the last update, when the force was arguably busy fighting two wars. Currently, the wear and appearance of those items are buried in cryptic ALARACT (All Army Activity) messages which are hard to read and even harder to find.

The updated AR 670-1 will be welcomed by non-commissioned officers throughout the Army who have to answer the question daily, “Hey Sergeant, how am I supposed to wear this?”

Besides updating the wardrobe, hints at what to expect have leaked out, and all signs point to more restrictive regulations concerning grooming and behavior standards, which has raised the ire of some who lament the return of a “garrison” Army.

Some of the expected changes include:

-Tattoos cannot be visible above the neck line or extend below the wrist line or hands while wearing Army uniforms
-No eating, drinking, or smoking while walking
-No talking on cell phones while walking
-No gold teeth or “grillz”
-Male soldiers will have to shave their faces, even on weekends when off duty

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fostered an environment where if a potential policy does not immediately impact the ability of the warfighter to do his or her job – win the nation’s wars – then it is dismissed as irrelevant and a distraction to the force. That seems to make sense, and it is a hard argument to counter, especially to the junior sergeants and officers who have shouldered the burden of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those soldiers, by virtue of their wartime service, feel emboldened to decide what is relevant and what is nonsense in terms of “Big Army” policy and its effect on war-fighting.

Without question, training and preparing for the “unforgiving minute” should be the focus of policy and regulation. But to categorically dismiss anything that doesn’t have a direct relevance to the guy shooting the enemy presents an unrealistic burden on the force – one that can never be met.

Soldiering is a process, not an end. Discipline is developed – especially among young men and women – through tough standards that are rigidly enforced. Keeping a neat haircut or shaving on the weekends won’t make you shoot straighter. But general discipline over time inculcates pride in the profession of arms, which builds confidence that spills over to other areas, like training.

The popular narrative right now is that of a “wartime” Army that is fantastic at fighting, but is about to shift to a “garrison” Army akin to that of the 1990s that is more concerned with looking good. This narrative is fueled in small part by opinion pieces saying such, but is really getting around through military-themed internet memes and satire blogs that are insanely popular with troops.

This narrative has legs because it idolizes the soldier who has gone to war – which is one of the driving forces to join in the first place – while protecting the soldier from restrictive “garrison policies” when he or she returns home. The narrative assumes a zero sum environment, where a force that concerns itself with tattoos and haircuts cannot simultaneously train as well for war.

The fallacy is that going to war does not necessarily make you good at war. Tough, realistic training prepares you for war. Going to war provides experience. Showing up is good, but as the Army football team demonstrates yearly in the Army-Navy Game, showing up isn’t always good enough.

Interestingly, it was the Army that emerged from the 1990s that invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and by many accounts, that Army performed those invasions exceptionally well. It is the following years of counterinsurgency and “surges” whose efficacy is being called into question, those years when we became a “wartime” Army, and those “garrison” standards were shed.

When I spoke with a friend and senior NCO about this, he offered some candid analysis, stating: “They (junior NCOs) aren’t as good as some say they are. They can’t maneuver over complex terrain. They can get in a vehicle, drive to an objective, do something, and then return to the forward operating base and hit the chow hall. The discipline that made the invasion Army good spilled over into everything we did back then, and that’s why we were so successful.”

On the role of the Army, he continued “Moreover, the Army has a responsibility to think about things other than shooting bad guys. Our appearance and actions in America are how we garner trust from the public. Our persona as a force has to be palatable to most of America to continue to enjoy the relationship that we have now.”

Taking the long view, that “garrison” Army looks pretty darn good. And they could fight, too.

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