Following this, I thought I’d mention an interesting trend in the use of the military uniform. When I joined the Army a few years ago, the standard uniform was the BDU, the Battle Dress Uniform. It was a “natural” woodland camouflage pattern of green, black, and light and dark browns. Originally, the uniform was intended to be wash-and-wear, but in practice it was required, in garrison at least, that it be pressed and starched. The uniform included black boots which in theory were only required to be black and polished, though again, in practice it was required that they be polished to a high shine, preferably a mirror shine. Finally, of course, there was headgear — initially the patrol cap (basically a camouflage baseball cap), but later the beret.
The beret-and-BDU period was probably the apex of the formality of the duty uniform, excluding some jobs (like recruiting) which require the dress uniform. But then the war started, and right away uniforms became less formal. First there was the DCU (Desert Combat Uniform), brought back from the first Gulf War, which had suede boots that didn’t need polishing. But the DCU was usually only authorized for wear during actual deployment; stateside the BDU still ruled.
Eventually, following the Marine Corps, which had adopted a new “digital”-pattern uniform in 2000, the Army developed the ACU, the “Army Combat Uniform.” Even the name indicates the change in attitude — it’s a combat uniform, intended for an environment in which the Army, nearly all of it, is constantly rotating in and out of combat. Some of the innovations of the ACU are functional — the left sleeve has three slender pen pockets on the forearm; there are utility pockets on each shoulder (because you can’t reach the chest pockets when you’re wearing body armor); the fabric is lighter-weight, non-starchable, and cut looser than the BDUs; and the boots, like those of the DCU, are no-polish tan suede.
But there’s a more subtle, fascinating distinction between the BDU and the ACU. On the BDU, rank is worn on the collar. On the ACU it’s a velcro patch over the sternum. What this means is that it’s much harder to see the rank. You can only see someone’s rank if you’re standing directly in front of them, and then only if they’re not carrying anything, if their weapon sling doesn’t obscure it, if they haven’t folded their arms across their chest…. You can’t see someone’s rank if you’re coming up behind and passing them, which you used to be able to. Even if they’re walking at a slight angle to you, it’s possible you won’t see their rank.
All this adds up, cumulatively and over a long period, to a slight relaxation of the differences between ranks. You’re less likely to salute unfamiliar officers if it’s harder to see their rank, and even among the enlisted the usual sniffing around to establish dominance takes longer and is less rigorous when simply spotting the rank becomes more difficult. People become ever-so-slightly cagier when approaching people they don’t know.
And this subtle shift becomes a noticeable one once we’re in theatre and the weather starts to get cold. MNF-I uniform policies allow soldiers to wear the black fleece as an outer garment and the black or gray microfiber cap as headgear from November through March. This means that for all intents and purposes rank is no longer visible during those months. I can walk around post in near-anonymity. That wouldn’t stop a sergeant-major from calling me out if he wanted to, but it effectively neutralizes nosy E5s and E6s as well as most officers. Suddenly soldiers, used to a strictly hierarchical relationship with the people around them, are thrown back on a kind of general, cautious courtesy. Rank wins eventually, of course, but since no one knows what anyone’s rank is when they’re bundled up, most people adopt a policy of non-interference in anything that’s not absolutely urgent. (Even sergeants-major may find they have to modulate their tone somewhat, because although they can issue corrections to officers, they have to find a polite way to do it. And who’s to say I’m not a captain?) In short, on deployment, when I have less privacy than I’ve ever had in my life, I find myself with a surprising degree of latitude on the small things, like shaving before going to the chow hall on my day off, or carrying a weapon with me to the gym. No one wants to question anyone else.
Part of this, of course, is the general atmosphere of deployment; soldiers are out of training and doing the real job, and so they’re given a great deal more respect and autonomy. But that, in itself, is what the new uniform is all about. The ACU is the outcome and the symbol of the Army’s current state of continuous combat. And the slight misplacement of the rank and the relaxed standards regarding cold weather gear seem to recognize that in an Army where officers and senior enlisted sleep, eat, bathe, work, and fight alongside their soldiers, often sharing intimate space with them, the divisions between ranks are simply not going to be as crisp as they were in garrison during the Cold War.