Something hits me every time I see American troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. Several World War Two veterans and fellow Vietnam veterans I know have the same reaction. It has nothing to do with the politics of the wars. It’s the uniforms of our soldiers today, the ones in combat zones. They’re astonishingly tidy. Parade-ground tidy, one might even say. I know the reason and it’s partly my fault.
Even though there are no Vietnam veterans in the military anymore (unless there’s a white-walled sergeant major somewhere with hash marks like the Union Pacific railroad), the military looks back on the disciplinary troubles of the Vietnam War with horror and disgust – as a Calvinist minister would a drunken weekend in a Swiss whorehouse. The wayward minister could deny it ever happened, but our generals can’t. There’s news footage and a lot of us were there. Insubordination and AWOLs were on the rise. Morale and cohesion were on the decline. Discouraging words were heard as the peasants were daring to question the regime.
The Pentagon aristocracy and their socio-consultants think they know why. It had nothing to do with incurring several hundred thousand casualties in a pointless war. Nah, couldn’t be. Anything wrong with the leadership? Well, two of the most admirable people I’ve ever known were a sergeant and a captain over there, but <i>choi duc oi</i> there were a lot of truly bad NCOs and officers back then. Couldn’t read a map, hated minorities, and assumed three chevrons or a bar or two made them natural leaders of men before whom lower enlisted personnel must bow. Nah, that had nothing to do with the problem.
The home office concluded it was the uniforms of the guys out in the field. Yeah, that and the hair. It was letting the guys go without shaving for a couple days and without buttoning up their jungle fatigues. Signs of the apocalypse. It was the slovenliness of soldiers that brought anarchy. Forget the Mayan calendar.
Man, I’d like to see one of today’s four-stars go back and tell guys on Guadalcanal and at Dak To that they need to straighten up and look STRAC.
“You’re all disgraces to the uniform!!!”
“We know that . . . sir. Now excuse us but we’ve got to get the wounded out and set up Claymores.”
A reckless disregard for officialdom’s idea of what the American fighting man should look like was our war-given right. Our attire and demeanor – War Casual, let’s call it – was something we’d earned in the deal to fight in a hot, malarial, god-forsaken country where, unbeknownst to us, one day our tennis shoes would be made and other people’s resorts would be built. It was a source of pride. We were a band of disheveled brothers who could push aside the Pentagon foppery that rolled so rapidly downhill. All in all, I’d say War Casual actually helped cohesion and morale.
Most of our NCOs and lieutenants let it go, though they abided by the regs. They wanted to be platoon sergeants and captains. We wanted to be PFCs: Proud Fuckin’ Civilians. We did our jobs; we just bitched more and shaved less. The better sergeants and LTs knew that. We were adopting the War Casual look our fathers had made fashionable from New Guinea to the Siegfried Line.
No one’s knocking today’s GIs here. It’s hotter in Anbar than it was in An Khe; the mountains of Paktia are even tougher than the ones in the A Shau. We knew to the day when we got out and never heard of stop-losses or fourth deployments. I just wonder how many casualties there’ve been from being buttoned up tight like that under those conditions. But I’m sure that’s all been factored in.
The generals don’t understand our soldiers. They eat chow with “their boys” and chat demotically with them, but they don’t understand them. They honestly think those guys would be less effective soldiers if they ignored a uniform reg or two while walking patrols in the Middle East and Central Asia.
The generals don’t understand “their boys” because they’ve never been in a war. They’ve commanded battalions and brigades, but they’ve never done patrols in 95-degree heat, or climbed a mountainside with a rucksack and a Prick-25, or had to confront their own mortality at nineteen or so. If they had, they’d have a better perspective on their regulations, and a better understanding of the troops they order around.
BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org