Michael Crichton, in his otherwise terrible Timeline, expends a lot of energy making the interesting point that medieval knights must have been incredible, formidable athletes. Their weapons were heavy, and they had to swing them hard to make them effective. Their armor was also heavy and awkward, came in many layers, took the help of assistants to put on, and was ungodly hot in any weather warmer than “refreshingly cool.”
Some American Indian tribes experimented with light breastplates made of horizontal slats of bone or buffalo horn, like Venetian blinds. They hadn’t gotten around to metalworking by the time Europeans came along with smallpox and pretty much made noble hand-to-hand combat unnecessary, but their breastplates would turn an axe or even an arrow. And they looked wicked cool.
I like to think of our modern body armor and equipment as somewhere in between. In fact, a modern soldier wearing the individual body armor (IBA) looks a lot like a samurai. The IBA is a vest, like the lacquered samurai armor, leaving the arms free for fighting, with a thick anti-flak collar that sticks up and screams “Elvis!” It has removable “sappy plates,” which add 12 lbs. to the soldier’s load and constitute the actual bullet-proofing. But the vest itself protects against shrapnel, is heavy and hot, and is fronted with a series of loops from which you can hang pockets and pouches. The loops, in theory, replace the old load-bearing vest (LBV), really oversized suspenders which attached to the webbed pistol belt, and which also held pockets and pouches for ammunition, pens, maps, bits of the MRE that you’re saving for later, a compass, and the sterile field dressing which every soldier wears on his non-firing shoulder. In practice, soldiers in our unit have two or three different styles of IBA, some with the loops, some without. So we end up wearing the LBV anyway.
The new IBA also has a canvas handle on the upper back to make it easier to drag a soldier off the battlefield or haul him backward into a Humvee.
The modern soldier also wears a Kevlar ballistic helmet. Inside, there’s a peach-colored sweatband which clips to the circular framework of webbing that suspends the helmet around your head. (Webbing is sort of a theme in the military.) The headband quickly turns an ugly grey. The important thing with the Kevlar is to keep something between the top of your head and the circle of strings that holds everything on. It’s not so bad for women, who have some hair up there, but a man who doesn’t wear a foam “donut”, or at least a pair of socks, inside his Kevlar is going to have a three inch button of flesh sticking up on the top of his head.
Getting dressed for the field is as follows. Underwear, if you like. You will want it. Some guys still wear the tighty brownies they issued us in basic; most don’t. Women do not have issue underwear; a smart woman will bring sports bras. Next, brown T-shirt, boot socks. (Boot socks are a whole separate monograph. After some experimenting, I wear SmartWools. No matter how long you wear them, when you take them off, your feet are dry.) Then BDU pants, which can either be bloused with small collars that you buy separately, or folded over and tucked into the combat boots.
The Army used to issue all-leather combat boots with rubber soles and a steel shank. They take some breaking in, but eventually they’re comfortable as hell. Sometime recently, they started issuing the new Infantry Combat Boot instead. It’s part leather and part canvas, with a sole more like a running shoe. Word on the street is it’s terrible — uncomfortable at best, even painful after a long ruck march. The only other boot authorized under AR 670-1 is the jungle boot, which is similar in appearance to the ICB, but doesn’t suck. It also has air holes near the bottom of the arch for ventilation. (Desert camo and the new digital-pattern ACU take the tan suede boot, which has the great, blessed virtue of not being polishable.)
The BDU blouse is normally pressed in garrison. When I first got out of basic and was living in B Co. at the Defense Language Institute, there was a kind of cult of starchers and pressers, related to, but rarely overlapping, the cult of boot polishers. Sometimes they would room together and start their own little Smithian division-of-labor economy. I learned how to polish boots to the tolerable minimum and where the post dry cleaner was.
Of course, you don’t wear pressed BDUs to the field. (Supposedly, the starch even makes you more visible to IR goggles.) Most soldiers keep a set or two of BDUs that they don’t mind beating to hell. According to AR 670-1, BDUs are serviceable until one color can no longer be distinguished from another, though an NCO will usually tell you to “lose the cook whites” long before that point. Some soldiers keep a set to wear for paintball, an increasingly popular sport for people whose primary job skills are marksmanship and small group tactics.
The Army recently introduced the “ACU,” with chunky, Atari-style digital aliasing in the grayish-green camo, intended to replace both the classic woodland BDU and also the now-familiar desert uniform (DCU). It’s supposed to be wash-and-wear (although so were the original BDUs), and the various tags and patches which tell a soldier’s life story are now velcroed on rather than sewn in place (let the pranking begin!), which coud be seen as improvements. But let’s be serious. The Army has spent millions to develop a newer, better camouflage uniform in the middle of a war in which hiding ourselves in the terrain is almost completely irrelevant. We ought to put on red coats and get it over with.
After the BDU (or ACU) blouse, the IBA goes on, again with either its own detachable pockets and pouches or the LBV. A soldier carries a minimum of two quarts of water with him in molded-plastic canteens exactly the shape and size of the tin ones carried in WW II, but recently the Army has been investing in Camelbak-style personal water backpacks. These can be worn over or under the body armor, taste better than canteens, hold three quarts instead of two, are less likely to get in your way going through a narrow breach, and, with their snaky mouth tube coming up over the shoulder, have a pleasantly science-fictiony look and feel.
After armor and assorted gear, before you step out the door you don the Kevlar. In almost all pictures you will see coming from Iraq, soldiers have a small black metal square on the front of their Kevlars: it’s the mount for the night vision goggles. In garrison that’s where rank insignia goes.
Headgear is worn outdoors and removed indoors. There are exceptions and gray areas. You wear a Kevlar inside a bunker or a fighting position, even if there’s cover over you. You wear it in the Humvee. In garrison, there’s an ongoing debate about whether to wear a cover when standing under cover (as on a porch or in a gazebo.) Wearing a beret or a patrol cap is seen as a kind of metaphor for wearing the Kevlar; the point of donning headgear every time you go outside is to develop the habit of always protecting your brain. With headgear, you are carrying your own little roof with you. You are “covered.” Nothing will come down on you.
So, according to some, when you are standing under cover, you don’t necessarily need to wear your own personal cover. Marines hate this “rule.” But they have toilet-training issues.
Of course, a Kevlar won’t stop a mortar round. But then, neither will an ordinary roof. It may or may not stop a 7.62 mm rifle round. It may or may not save your life if your vehicle rolls over an IED. Fire is not always going to come from above.