Dressed for Duty


Nov. 7, 2008

On the streets of Washington, near the Capitol, I see plenty of soldiers, and they are almost always dressed in the tan digital-camouflage fatigues known as ACUs (for Army Combat Uniforms). It creates an odd effect, with the camouflage making the soldiers stand out from the crowd. But that is what the brass wants to achieve: Having the troops wear their battle dress on the homefront is meant to remind us all-too-comfortable civilians that there is a war on and that soldiers are fighting and dying. Even so, there are plenty of opportunities for soldiers to wear their coat-and-tie service uniforms, but they generally choose not to. In no small part this is because the service uniforms are unloved by the rank and file, who have long complained that they make soldiers indistinguishable from bus drivers.


The green polyester Army "Class A" uniforms -- with their infamous mint green shirts -- are finally on the way out, scheduled to be artifacts of military history by 2014. The new service uniforms will be a business-wear variation on the Army's dress blues, the uniform worn on such formal occasions as funerals and balls. The new Class A's could present an opportunity for soldiers to step out with a bit more panache. But will troops want to wear the new uniform any more than they have the old one? Will the Army finally overcome its envy of the handsome uniforms enjoyed by the Marines and Navy?


The green suit rarely comes out of the closet these days. Most soldiers are happy wearing their ACUs stateside. It makes them feel connected to their brethren overseas and keeps them in a martial mindset. "I like the fact that I can stride purposefully around in boots," says a West Point grad just back from Iraq. In her ACUs she's "not just some administrative weenie." Many soldiers also appreciate the comfort of their fatigues. So much so that some Army pals of mine refer to them as their "jammies."


That said -- and though I'm inclined to defer to the preferences of the soldiers who wear the uniform -- the Army could use a return to more polished stateside garb. Too many people harbor the ugly and ungrateful prejudice that the military is populated with dropouts. To counter that, there's something to be said for coat-and-tie uniforms that convey the Army's professionalism.


Uniforms matter in how the public perceives soldiers, but does dress have anything to do with good soldiering? It's an ancient debate. One side of the question is mockingly expressed by Donald Sutherland in the (preposterous) movie "The Dirty Dozen." His scruffy character is pressed into impersonating a general and inspecting some spit-and-polish troops. "Very pretty," he says to their commander. "But can they fight?"


The flip side of the argument was made, compellingly, by Gen. George S. Patton when he arrived in Tunisia to take command of Army troops who were as disheveled as they were demoralized. "It is absurd to believe that soldiers who cannot be made to wear the proper uniform can be induced to move forward in battle," he wrote in his diary. Granted, Patton was a bit of a uniform nut, but he did know a thing or two about moving forward in battle.


Lord Wellington, who would whup Napoleon's fancy-pants forces at Waterloo, wrote that he was "indifferent how a soldier is clothed, provided it is in a uniform manner." On the other hand, the Patton of the War of Independence, Gen. Anthony Wayne, wrote to Gen. George Washington that he would rather lead a charge of elegantly dressed soldiers armed merely with bayonets than a mufti rabble packing "sixty rounds of cartridges" each. Maybe that's why he was called "Mad Anthony," but it's worth noting that Washington replied to Wayne: "I agree perfectly with you as to the importance of dress."


For Gens. Washington and Wayne, American uniforms featured deep-blue coats. With its new service uniforms the Army hopes to make today's soldiers more fully part of a lineage that goes back to the Continental Army. Even after the Army switched to olive drab a century ago, the blue uniform was maintained for formal dress; nowadays, you will see it being worn by Army sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknowns. It is a fine and serious-minded uniform (especially when worn, as honor guards do, with a belt around the jacket waist).


There's one big problem with the move to the blue uniform as an everyday noncombat outfit: The coat won't be required in workaday situations, and so it will rarely be worn. That means the average soldier will be wearing blue trousers and a white shirt, with or without a black necktie. After decades of complaints that the uniform makes soldiers look like bus drivers, the Army has responded by coming up with another bus driver's get-up.


To distinguish soldiers from Ralph Kramden there is the obligatory beret -- an impractical hat that fails to shade the eyes or cool the head. But the main difference between the new Army service uniform and a bus driver's is that a corporal in his second enlistment is likely to be as gaudily beribboned as a banana-republic dictator, loaded down with patches and pins, ribbons and lanyards.


Some soldiers value the walking resume; that the uniform has become. I'm with those who think that it's best to edit the display down to the most important details -- such as a designation for having served in combat. With the new uniforms, so many pins and badges are anticipated that they've made room for them on the soldiers' stomachs.


If the comment threads at the Army Times newspaper Web site are any indication (and my conversations with Army friends suggest they are), the new service uniforms are a flop. Some conservatively minded posters hew to the ugly forest- and mint-green uniforms that have remained largely unchanged for 50 years. But most interesting is the swell of support for another sort of uniform altogether -- a call for a return to the "pinks and greens" that were worn by officers in World War II. Who can blame them for wanting to look like Gregory Peck in "Twelve O'Clock High" -- or like Jimmy Stewart, in his real-life role as a decorated bomber pilot? Soldiers who champion that uniform see it as a way to link their service to the Greatest Generation's. But it is also widely regarded as the sharpest uniform the modern Army has ever known. It featured trousers of a rosy-hued khaki (romantically described as being the color of a glowing-hot gun barrel). The jacket was a dark olive drab, and was often worn belted. No bus driver has ever sported such spiffy duds.


Whether it presses forward with the blue or makes an unlikely shift toward pinks and greens, let's hope that the Army revises the service uniform further to achieve a combination of martial vigor and tailored professionalism. Why shouldn't the best army in the world be the best-looking one, too?