20 June 2011

Dressed Not to Kill, Part I

One of the great advantages about uniforms is that they are uniform. One of the great disadvantages of recent U.S. Army uniforms is that they haven't been. When it comes to camouflage, Uncle Sam acts like a drunken tailor.

We've seen a mix-and-mismatched Army for nearly a decade now. Even after getting rid of woodland- and desert-specific camouflage patterns (remember the alphabet-soup of BDU, DBDU, and DCU?), we've still been mixing "digital sand-tiger" with "mountain-colored monkey."

Remember Garanimals, the line of color-coordinated children's clothing launched in the early 1970s? Kids could mix-and-match shirts, skirts, and pants as long as they stayed within the proverbial lions--categories labelled as "monkey," "tiger," "rhino," and "bear."

Perhaps, the U.S. Army should draft some Garanimals. If everything in your rolling footlocker is one color--currently Universal Camouflage Pattern (U.C.P.) or MultiCam, take your pick--it doesn't matter how much of "Fashion Don't" you are in your personal civilian life. Through the magic of Government Issued clothing, even the chronically Worst Dressed Joes can still put on the right pants when we get up. Even in complete darkness. One camouflaged leg at a time.

Nothing that simple can be allowed to remain that simple in the Army, however. Even in those historic moments when the whole Army is on the same bolt of fabric, we like to work harder, not smarter. Senior sergeants, for example, often make seemingly arbitrary specifications to the day's dress code and packing lists. "Your poncho will be folded neatly and placed in the left-most exterior pocket of your assault bag," for example. " Or "your medical kit will be placed over the left shoulder." Each decree results in a flurry of packing and repacking.

Believe it or not, however, there can be method to this obsessive-compulsive madness. If anyone needs to find someone's poncho or med-kit in a hurry, for example, they know exactly where it should be.

For other Army leaders, however, it's less about such practicalities, and more about discipline. Consider this 1943 quote from U.S. Army Gen. George S. Patton Jr., known for his pit bull tank tactics during World War II, and his slap-in-the-face treatment of the troops: “It is absurd to believe that soldiers who cannot be made to wear the proper uniform can be induced to move forward in battle. Officers who fail to perform their duty by correcting small violations and in enforcing proper conduct are incapable of leading.”

Actor George C. Scott memorably played the general in "Patton" (1970), an Academy Award-winning biographical movie that allegedly contains more truths and truisms than it does historical traps or tripwires. From that movie, even a casual viewer will learn three sartorial facts:
  • Patton was deadly serious about the proper wear of uniforms. In the movie, for example, he advises a physician to cut holes in a combat helmet, so that the doc could employ a stethoscope while still protecting his noggin. In real-life, Patton imposed fines of non-helmet-wearing personnel. His soldiers came to call the steel pot a "$25 derby" hat.
  • Patton himself sported a variety of idiosyncratic garb and gear, including two mis-matched ivory-handled revolvers. "They're ivory," the movie character corrects a visiting reporter. "Only a pimp from a cheap New Orleans whorehouse would carry a pearl-handled pistol."
  • After he proposed a flashy redesign of tanker uniforms--a green-tunic with gold football helmet that looks like something from Star Trek's Romulan collection--Patton's stylings reportedly earned him nicknames such as "Flash Gordon" and "Green Hornet."
What's sauce for Patton is sauce for the press, however. When you get to pick your own clothes, how do you avoid looking like you're from a different planet? Or from the future?

What happens when Mother Army stops telling you what to wear, and offers only minimal guidance to the newly non-combatant on what NOT to wear? Here are some excerpts from the International Security Assistance Force ("ISAF") / NATO media embed application packet:
All visiting journalists must possess their own helmet and body armour (bullet-proof vest). Any journalist arriving without this equipment will not be permitted to visit ISAF in Afghanistan. Journalists are strongly advised to gain experience and training for operating in harsh and hostile environments and are expected to come equipped and clothed appropriately.

Accommodated media must wear their media credentials in a clearly visible location at all times.

Accommodated media are responsible for procuring / using personal protective gear, to include as a minimum military-grade helmet and body armour. Clothing and equipment will be subdued in color and appearance, but non-military in appearance (i.e. camouflage).

Accommodated media are responsible for their own personal and professional gear, including protective cases for professional equipment, batteries, cables, converters, personal protective equipment, etc. Each media representative is responsible for carrying his own gear.
To recap for would-be embeds:
  • Body armor and helmet.
  • No camouflage.
  • Change it up color-wise, but stay subtle.
  • Media badge visible at all times.
  • Carry your own stuff.

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