A Hairbrained Regulation, Ctd

A reader quotes Elizabeth Nolan Brown on the controversy over the Army’s new hairstyle guidelines, which critics say are biased against black women:

“Why not start from a place of allowing women and their immediate supervisors to make those determinations?” Yeah, because if there are two things a military is about, they are decentralized management and individual decision-making. And there will absolutely be no possibility of problems arising when soldiers whose immediate “supervisors”- what is this, WalMart? – have vastly different concepts for what is appropriate hair, or if one of them just doesn’t like African-American hair. What a great idea. And whose says libertarian publications are out of touch with reality?

Another is less sarcastic:

You have to start with the value that the military, both for practical reasons and from tradition, places on “uniform.”

The practical reasons involve both ease of figuring out who is part of your side and promotion of group identity, especially when members come from very different economic situations and cultural backgrounds.

But in some cases, the military makes adjustments.  Physical reality means that you can’t put women into blouses (yes, the military term means the jackets worn by both men and women) without darts.  So the military allows that much variation.  The color, material, and cut of the uniform is still mandated, but that much difference in cut is allowed.  (And you might be amazed at the detail with which the uniform regulations specify how darts must be configured, in order to deal with “underarm fullness”.)

And with hair, the military admits that the broader culture expects women to wear their hair longer than men and allows that.  Women, at least while on duty, have to wear their hair in a style that is tightly constrained, but they can wear it far longer than any man would be allowed.  Similarly, women’s uniforms include the option of wearing a skirt – don’t try that if you are a guy!

So the issue here, and one the military is apparently only belatedly addressing, is how to deal with a situation where they have already made a cultural allowance but have not addressed a physical reality (that black people’s hair is simply not mechanically identical to white or East Asian people’s hair).  I expect that, eventually, they will get it right. But it will be messy.


This is an ancient story.  During my time in the Air Force, in the early 1970s, when dissent against the Vietnam war was at its maximum and the draft was a burning issue, the hairstyle controversy raged with regard to men’s hair.  It took the form of an eternal conflict between draft-motivated volunteers who wanted to look like rock stars and lifers who wanted to wage war on hippies.  The regulations were ridiculously complicated.  At times, the conflict became racial when the bigots became outraged at big Afros.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s proposal would create trouble.  Commanding officers and supervising sergeants would act capriciously.  Bigotry would ooze out of the slime.

The rules for men and women are still ridiculously complicated and absolutely without practical utility.  A simple solution would be a one-sentence regulation: Hair on the head will be styled to avoid a clearly observable physical impediment to the performance of military duties, to the wearing of military headgear, or to health and safety.

Update from a reader:

I’m glad this topic is getting some traction. It’s getting a lot of talk in Army circles, more over the tattoo policy changes, but the general resentment is there all the same. If you talk to soldiers about the revisions to AR 670-1 (the service-wide uniform and appearance regulations) you’ll probably get an eye roll with a “here we go again” from the older NCOs who remember what it was like in the pre-Iraq Army. The move is perceived as an institutional move from the Army at war we’ve had for over a decade, and in which almost all of our leadership is derived from, to a garrison Army that focuses on stupid shit like shining boots and ironing uniforms.

Just as an aside, the last major uniform revision we had in 2007, when the Army introduced the Army Combat Uniform, got rid of leather boots specifically, though of course unofficially, because soldiers were wasting too much time in garrison being made to shine boots – we’ve worn suede boots since, pretty much only to avoid Sergeants Major with too much time on their hands going around bothering privates about the proper amount of shine.

Of course, people forget that the ACU itself is still a hotly contentious issue in the military. It suffers from an acute problem of blending in to absolutely nothing except light grey gravel pits, and it actually makes soldiers stand out more against natural backdrops. This has been known since at least 2006 when the Army began introducing the “Universal Camouflage Pattern” as a kind of jealous response to the effective MARPAT digital camouflage uniform worn by the Marine Corps since 2003. That’s why when we send soldiers on a deployment to Afghanistan, we send them in special uniforms designed for Afghanistan which are essentially ACUs, but the camouflage pattern is the more sensible MultiCam pattern. Congress is actually ticked at the military for not addressing the camouflage problem, but because of interservice rivalry (the Marine Corps fiercely protects its camouflage pattern and doesn’t want other services adopting it, lest they feel less special) the Army is stuck with the gray gravel camouflage that literally blends into nothing.  (Here’s an Economist article from this month that gives background on the whole camouflage debacle.)

But instead of fixing the nearly eight year-old camouflage problem, a real uniform issue, we have a transitioning peacetime Army that is focussing on making black females’ hair impossible to comply with regulations, making males cut their hair once every 3-4 days in order to comply with asinine length requirements, and chaptering out experienced soldiers because of their sleeve tattoos. Priorities, right?