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Breaking Starch: The Paradox of Modern Military Uniforms
Robert H. Gregory, Jr.
The old Army saying ‘Who ever saw a dirty soldier with a medal?’ is largely true.
George S. Patton, Jr. War As I Knew It, 1947
I’d like France to have two armies: one for display, with lovely guns, tanks, little soldiers, fanfares, staffs, distinguished and doddering generals, and dear little regimental officers who would be deeply concerned over their general’s bowel movements or their colonel’s piles: an army that would be shown for a modest fee on every fairground in the country.
The other would be the real one, composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage battledress, who would not be put on display but from whom impossible efforts would be demanded, and to whom all sorts of tricks would be taught. That’s the army in which I should like to fight.
Translated from Jean Larteguy, Le Centurions, 1960
With the above and oft-quoted line from The Centurions, the fictional character Colonel Pierre Raspeguy, a hard-nosed French paratrooper, expresses frustration with his army’s focus on outdated practices and superficial concerns during France’s war in Indochina. In the aftermath of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Colonel Raspeguy was trying to transform his unit into a capable force for France’s subsequent intervention in Algeria. In contrast, Patton’s quote highlights the U.S. Army’s focus on uniform appearance as an indicator of performance and resonates with Raspeguy’s notion of a “display” army. Patton used the qualifier largely true, however, because he logically knew that the old saying was not always true. In any case, both quotes skirt around the larger, paradoxical nature of modern military uniforms and Western military professionals’ misguided obsession with immaculate and eye-catching attire.
Modern military uniforms simultaneously serve two contradictory purposes—identification and concealment. Ever since humans first clothed themselves, attire and other forms of outward appearances have been interconnected with personal and group identity. For the profession of arms, this dynamic manifested with attire as an embodiment of the profession, both as a collective that transcended the individual and as a hierarchical organization consisting of individuals with different skills, ranks, and achievements. Hence, the military uniform has always served symbolic as well as practical purposes. As such, the key to an army’s evolving outlook lies in the symbolism of its ever-changing uniforms. Likewise, current or proposed military attire is often indicative of how an army expects to face future challenges.
Today, the formal attire of militaries across the world mimics that which originated in 17th century Europe. In describing warfare of this era, cultural historian and World War II veteran Paul Fussell wrote: “soldiers needed to be seen in all their threatening glory to demoralize their enemy a short distance away.” This form of identification, through brightly-colored mass formations, signified the moral unity of combatants as well as their national identity. Being seen in “all their threatening glory” pertained to tactical effectiveness, while national or group identification served a political and social purpose. At the beginning of the 20th century, with advances in the destructiveness of firepower, a new purpose for military uniforms emerged—concealment.
For the most part, militaries addressed this new purpose by delineating between formal and tactical attire as a way to hold onto 17th century uniform traditions while facing new challenges. Soldiers had two uniforms, both of which revealed their national identity, with one formal and the other for a field environment. But this was not the only way to identify the nationality and status of those who fought while at the same time keeping troops concealed from modern firepower. The paradox of modern military uniforms lies in the fact that concealment is possible without camouflage, and identification is possible without a uniform. Irregular forces take full advantage of these possibilities, tactically concealing themselves in plainclothes amongst the population, identifying their actions and political causes through the internet or other forms of communication. State and non-state actors frequently harness nonstandard means of political identification and tactical concealment through “irregular” or “unconventional” warfare. The paradoxical purposes of modern military uniforms described thus far are central to the U.S. Army’s current efforts to face an unpredictable future that will likely entail a combination of conventional and unconventional forms of conflict.
Origins of Contemporary Military Uniforms
Ever since the adoption of military uniforms, any slight change in attire represented a major change in institutional outlook. In the 19th century, the influence of a so called “paradigm army”—one that had seemingly mastered the conduct of warfare—often spurred other nations’ armed forces to imitate the dress of the army of the day. Prior to 1870, French fashion in military attire was all the rage. After 1870, however, with the lopsided Prussian victory over France, spiked helmets symbolized the favored manner. Even the U.S. Army fell in line with this trend, briefly adopting black spiked helmets, despite the fact that they were “uncomfortable in warm weather climates where American troops were fighting Indian Wars.” And so a peacetime pageantry of superficial mimicry of fashionable military attire ensued, at least until war broke out. It has been that way ever since, with digital-patterned camouflage uniforms as the current flavor of the day.
The most significant change in modern military uniforms was the advent of camouflage during World War I. Soldiers began to wear camouflage during this war, and used it as a means to conceal artillery pieces from aerial observation. The advent of modern direct and indirect fire systems caused militaries to adopt camouflage in an attempt to conceal troops and critical equipment from being targeted by the devastating effects of firepower. Despite the enormous incentive to remain invisible to the enemy, however, militaries still find themselves getting caught up in the traditional details of how to wear numerous colorful and shiny accoutrement.
Napoleon observed that “a soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” He instinctively understood how to appeal to the frailty (or power, depending on how you view it) of the human ego, having quite a large ego himself. The display and allure of colorful items resembles more so the manner in which male peacocks use their colorful feathers to attract mates rather than anything of tactical significance in modern warfare. Although the traditions that Napoleon cynically described continue until the present time, as evident with the wear and presentation of awards, field uniforms began a period of transition towards drab and less striking colors after the Napoleonic era. This process commenced during the latter half of the 19th century, and culminated in 1914, with the adoption of plain-colored field garb by all major military powers. Some clung to tradition longer than others.
One hundred years ago, French infantrymen marched off to war wearing red pants and believing that the psychological shock effect of the color red, combined with the sense of oneness that it gave units, would lead to a quick victory. At the time, the French Army believed that “camouflaged material would actually sabotage national security.” Red pants epitomized the belief that élan won battles, despite the advent of machine guns and long range predicted artillery fire. Ironically, some French commanders thought it made perfect sense for their troops to have highly-visible red pants so that they did not mistakenly call in “friendly” artillery on them. Of course, the enemy had artillery too. In any case, even before the French Army marched into battle at the outset of World War I wearing fashionable red pants, militaries were obsessed with their appearance, sometimes more so than with the actual conduct of war.
As a case in point, Homer devoted 140 lines in the Iliad to describe the armor that Hephaistos forged for Achilles. His description of the armor served to illustrate certain social beliefs about war rather than the actual functionality of the armor in combat. The same is true today—what soldiers wear in garrison or into battle reveals certain institutional and societal beliefs about warfare. This is undoubtedly a heated topic within the U.S. Army of today, just as much as it was for the ancient Greek warriors of Homer’s world.
Every single issue of the Army Times, without fail, features front-page headlines on recent changes regarding uniforms and the appropriate wear of various badges, as well as numerous posts from readers that are concerned with some aspect of this subject. Beneath these superficial topics lies a deeper issue. The U.S. Army substituted the old French idea that red pants might “shock and awe” an opponent with similar beliefs about the digitally networked application of precision firepower, as evident with a decade-long modernization effort that commenced with a new headgear (2001) and a digital camouflage pattern (2004). But before these developments, there were other uniform changes, each equally as significant.
The Evolution of U.S. Army Uniforms after the Korean War
The U.S. Army underwent four major uniform changes since the end of the Korean War. An Army Chief of Staff initiated each uniform change during a period of reform in doctrine, organization, and equipment acquisition. These uniform changes consisted of the shade 44 green dress uniform in 1954, the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) in 1981, the black beret in 2001, and the Army Combat Uniform (ACU), introduced in 2004. The all-green uniform heralded the Pentomic Era, where the Army attempted to utilize nuclear weapons throughout its doctrine and organization. The BDU heralded Air Land Battle doctrine and the acquisition of the “Big Five” weapons systems. The black beret and Army Combat Uniform (ACU) were the first expressions of recent transformation efforts associated with the now defunct Future Combat Systems program. The next change in uniforms, whatever it is, will undoubtedly reveal underlying conservative proclivities within an institution that has been struggling for the past century to find a way to simultaneously deal with two significant aspects of contemporary warfare: the advent of modern indirect fire weapon systems and the challenge posed by guerilla tactics.
The frequency that the U.S. Army updates its various regulations and manuals reveals a misguided institutional focus. For example, the U.S. Army updates regulation AR 670-1, The Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia far more frequently than it does various doctrinal publications. In early 2014, the U.S. Army distributed fifty-seven PowerPoint slides to show leaders its expectations of Soldiers’ appearance based on recent changes to the updated 357 page AR 670-1. In contrast, the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate at Fort Leavenworth had to limit any new Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) to no more thirty pages, based on guidance from the Army Chief of Staff. Furthermore, prior to 2005, it had been twenty years since the U.S. Army published a manual devoted exclusively to counterinsurgency, as indicated by the foreword of the 2005 edition of FM 3-24. In those same twenty years, AR 670-1 had five updates despite the fact that the uniform remained relatively constant during this time frame. This indicated an unfortunate truth—the U.S. Army spends more time and effort in thinking about how to look rather than how to fight. To be fair, the number of pages or slides in a bureaucratic production does not necessarily correspond to the level of effort that an institution devotes to certain matters. Nevertheless, it is a solid indicator of a troubling trend. In times of crisis, the U.S. Army places emphasis on uniforms first and foremost.
The Pentomic Army and the 1954 Green Uniform
The introduction of the green uniform by Army Chief of Staff Maxwell Taylor in 1954 served as the first expression of reform for the Army after the Korean War. The new uniform heralded an era where the Army relied heavily on nuclear weapons, developing doctrine that called for the distribution of “tactical” nuclear weapons with a two-kilometer range down to the team level. The uniform went hand-in-hand with the Army’s new recruiting slogan of the 1950s—“Look Sharp, Be Sharp, Go Army!” As seen from the perspective of budgetary politics, the new uniform and reliance on nuclear weapons was an attempt to mimic the techniques of the U.S. Air Force, which had successfully secured a larger share of the defense budget. In an article in a professional journal in 1955, an Army officer jokingly suggested that the Army should be absorbed into the Air Force to save money, reduce rivalry, and boost morale by putting Soldiers “in a snazzy blue uniform.”
The motivation for having new uniforms during this period was partially due to dissatisfaction with the color of the existing uniform. An official Army study stated, “Because the color was a camouflage shade, not normally worn in men’s clothing, the uniform was almost instinctively rejected.” The study also stated “the olive-drab color lacked consumer acceptability and that the Army should find a more attractive color if it wished to obtain a satisfactory uniform upon which a tradition could be built.” To determine the appropriate color of the uniform, wives, veterans, and active duty soldiers were surveyed on whether they preferred various shades of colors such as gray, blue, green, taupe, or even pink. This effort was mostly an attempt to “distinguish” and compete with the colors used by the Air Force rather than to develop a functional uniform for combat. The U.S. Army’s adoption of the green uniform in 1954, though somewhat based upon tactical matters, did nothing to stop the perpetuation of traditions of strict a “military appearance.” 
In his autobiography, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell expressed frustration over the practice of “breaking starch,” whereby uniform pants were starched so heavily that the legs had to be broken open with a “broom handle” in order to wear the pants. Powell was disturbed by the fact that soldiers were spending too much time and money ironing and starching their uniforms for “readiness” inspections rather than training for actual combat readiness. He first used the term “breaking starch” while serving as a Lieutenant in Korea in 1961. Powell believed that starching was an example of a “foolish tradition.” While writing about experiences in positions of greater responsibility, Powell continued to use the phrase “breaking starch” in a metaphorical manner when frustrated by senseless bureaucratic practices.
In the period following the Korean War, the practice of heavily starching uniforms continued, albeit with a brief pause. Starting in 1963, troops headed to Vietnam wore a new tropical combat uniform in the field. This was a significant change in field uniform from the khaki and olive drab fabrics of World War II and Korea that Lieutenant Powell complained about having to starch heavily. On the formal side, however, shade 44 of the all-green uniform of 1954 remained the standard dress attire for over half a century, lasting beyond the adoption of the Battle Dress Uniform.
Air Land Battle and the 1981 Battle Dress Uniform
The 1981 movie Stripes, starring comedian Bill Murray, depicted new U.S. Army recruits wearing the green uniform and being unsuccessful in attaining emploment in any other profession. This movie, like others of the period, reflected the U.S. Army’s post-Vietnam low. But 1981 was also a turning point for the institution, marking the start of a decade-long upswing for the U.S. Army. 1981 entailed several new developments for the U.S. Army. It was a year that entailed new uniforms, new doctrine, new equipment, and a new slogan. First came the new Battle Dress Uniform, or BDU. The new doctrine was the 1982 edition of FM 100-5, Operations, which became known as “Air Land Battle.” The acquisition of the “Big Five” weapons systems—the M1 Abrams tank, Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, Apache attack helicopter, Blackhawk transport helicopter, and Patriot anti-aircraft missile brought new equipment. The new slogan, “Be All That You Can Be,” lasted two decades—exactly how long the Army held out until making uniform changes once again in 2001. But for now, back to 1981.
The BDU, just as much so as the revised doctrine and new weaponry, focused the U.S. Army on the Soviet threat in Europe. In part, the introduction of the BDU was an attempt to bleed out the manner in which traditional military culture continued to infect the Army. The label on the uniform plainly stated, “Do not starch.” Experiments and studies determined that the heavy starch soldiers applied to their uniforms appeared as a white glow when viewed through night vision devices, even after numerous washings. The special dyes in the BDU limited the visibility of the material in the infrared spectrum (the T-72 Soviet tank used an infrared sight), and these were rendered ineffective by starch. Starched uniforms also enhanced the potential for detection using thermal imaging systems (such as the one in the T-80 Soviet tank) due to increased heat retention.
The new uniform coincided with growing concern that the Soviet Army would use the cover of darkness to commence an attack through the Fulda Gap in a thrust toward the English Channel. At the time, the Soviet Union led the way in the development of night vision equipment and had a history of initiating major operations at night, combined with doctrine that called for night offensives. U.S. Army initiatives to “own the night” during the 1980s were inspired by these concerns. Although most of the initiatives were successful, attempts to end the tradition of starching uniforms were largely unsuccessful, as indicated in the following regulation:
Although some uniform items are made of wash-and-wear materials or are treated with a permanent-press finish, soldiers may need to press these items to maintain a neat, military appearance. However, before pressing uniform items, soldiers should read and comply with care instruction labels attached to the items. Soldiers may starch BDUs and the maternity work uniform, at their option. Commanders will not require soldiers to starch these uniforms, and soldiers will not receive an increase in their clothing replacement allowance to compensate for potential premature wear that may be caused by starching uniforms.
The regulation indicated a compromise between tradition and more practical concerns, though it conflicted with the guidance on the label of the BDU. Soldiers would have to set aside an unstarched set of BDUs for fighting the Soviets, and another for their everyday work.
But the Cold War ended, and the U.S. Army temporarily donned a chocolate chip-patterned Desert Battle Dress Uniform, the DBDU, as it expelled Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1991. In the aftermath, President George H. W. Bush declared, “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula.” It was a high water mark for the U.S. military, and the services kept their uniforms. After Operation Desert Storm, however, proponents of air power argued that the U.S. Army faced such minimal resistance during the war because the bombing campaign already destroyed the Iraqi Army. With the Cold War over, the military downsized and inter-service rivalries intensified. Just as in 1954, it was the U.S. Air Force that would once again spur reactionary uniform changes in the U.S. Army.
Berets and Digital Camouflage for a New Era?
In 1999, Operation Allied Force in Kosovo demonstrated the U.S. Air Force’s capacity to employ precision munitions from stand-off distances without the presence of significant NATO ground forces. Slobodan Milosevic agreed to a peace settlement after 78 days of bombing. Near the end of the campaign, military historian John Keegan proclaimed, “Now there is a new turning point to fix on the calendar: June 3, 1999, when the capitulation of President Milosevic proved that a war can be won by air power alone.” Making matters worse, the slow deployment of Task Force Hawk to Albania in support of Operation Allied Force turned out as an embarrassment for the U.S. Army. After the Kosovo conflict, an Army Chief of Staff would once again make uniform changes and adopt the form of firepower (stand-off precision firepower) gaining prominence in the Air Force, inspired by similar budgetary dynamics and fears of institutional irrelevance that were prevalent in the Army during the 1950s.
On 14 June 2001—the U.S. Army’s birthday—Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) issued a new version of its capstone Operations manual, and the entire Army donned black berets. On the same day, the doomed slogan, “Army of One,” replaced the popular “Be All That You Can Be” slogan from the previous two decades. “Army of One” lasted until 2006, almost as long as the new edition of Operations. The new doctrine came with a new numbering convention, FM 3-0, which replaced the long-running FM 100-5 designation in order to match the “3” in the title with the staff elements “G-3” or “S-3” that dealt with operations. But the one thing that stuck was the new headgear. The introduction of the black beret by General Erik Shinseki was “strikingly similar” in spirit to the introduction of the green uniform by General Maxwell Taylor in 1954.
The beret, as a form of headgear typically worn by rapidly-deployable paratrooper, special operations, and ranger units, meant to symbolize that the entire Army would become rapidly deployable. The acquisition of the beret inspired a Government Accountability Office report and numerous Congressional testimonies, since many berets were manufactured in China, in violation of the Berry Amendment (which required the Department of Defense to acquire clothing items from domestic sources) to meet the rapid 14 June production deadline. And naturally, the 75th Ranger Regiment was not happy about having to pick a new color beret to wear. When giving his reasoning for transitioning the Army to the black beret, General Shinkseki stated: “as technology allows, we will begin to erase the distinctions between heavy and light forces.” Thus, the introduction of the black beret was Shinseki’s preparatory attempt to homogenize the culturally distinct subdivisions within the Army in order to pave the way for a future force in which every brigade had the exact same equipment—the yet to be developed Future Combat System.
Next, on 14 June 2004, in yet another birthday celebration, the U.S. Army introduced the digitally-patterned Army Combat Uniform, or ACU. Like the all-green uniform, the BDU, and black beret that came before it, the U.S. Army intended the new uniform to be a departure from tradition, and a step forward to the future of warfare. A stern directive went along with the new uniform: “Soldiers will not starch the Army Combat Uniform under any circumstances.” This directive was worded stronger than the instructions associated with the BDU in 1981, and accompanied by an aggressive internal information campaign aimed to cease the practice of starching. Sergeant Major of the Army Kenneth Preston issued the following statement to all noncommissioned officers (NCOs) in the Army:
If we as NCOs enforce the standards and intent of the regulation, the savings gained by not sewing on patches or laundering at dry-cleaners should more than make up for the purchase and replacement costs. I look to you to help our Soldiers embrace this Warrior focus, while maintaining the clean appearance our Army is renowned for.
This quotation was on PowerPoint slides in briefings given by NCOs throughout the Army. The intent of the regulation mentioned by SMA Preston was not to starch the uniform, nor to use detergents with optical brighteners, as both of these measures would inhibit the effectiveness of the new digital camouflage in a nighttime environment. His challenge to find ways to maintain the renowned “clean appearance” without the use of starch was met with much creativity. Internet forums subsequently had posts written by Soldiers that illustrated ways of stiffening the ACU without starch, such as by putting it under a mattress and sleeping on top of it, whereby Soldiers were literally resting upon tradition while facing an uncertain future.
The direction of Shinseki’s Army transformation effort was evident with the new ACU. The digitized camouflage pattern alluded to the role that the digitization of various weapon systems might play in the future conduct of war. In contrast to having a different camouflage pattern for different environments, the new digitized pattern was meant for all environments. This was reflective of the U.S. Army’s belief that a homogenous, modular, brigade-centric force structure was suitable for all combat environments. By designing a camouflage pattern intended for all environments, the Army created a uniform not optimized for specific environments. It was a one-size-fits-all approach.
In contrast, the Marine Corps, had a different approach to its combat uniforms. In 2001, the Marines were the first to introduce a new digital patterned uniform. The new uniform allowed the Marine Corps to stand out while blending in. Marine Corps Commandant General James Jones proudly declared: “I want Marines to look differently, to be looked at differently. . . I don't want them to be confused with anybody else.” The newly developed Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform (MCCUU) did not rely on a single color scheme, and instead used separate woodland and desert patterns for different environments. This exhibited a willingness to use different equipment in different environments that was lacking in the Army.
Following the example set by the Marines, the Army decided that the tan desert boot should be worn with the ACU because its rough leather could not be shined. As a result, the Sarah Lee Corporation, owner of Kiwi shoe polish, decided to market shoe inserts and fresheners instead of polish in order to maintain profits. Fortunately, the U.S. Army discovered that shoe polish does not win wars. But it could do much better.
Starting in 1954, the first outward sign of change within the U.S. Army always came with the introduction of new apparel. These uniform changes occurred in the aftermath of inconclusive wars that triggered major reforms for the U.S. Army. Each change came during a period of fiscal constraints and inter-service rivalries over defense budgets. So what does all of this mean for today? With the end of large-scale military commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army will undoubtedly make uniform changes yet again. This time, however, drastic changes in uniform policy are necessary for the U.S. Army to shift its focus towards the realities of contemporary warfare.
There is no longer a need for the delineation between formal and tactical attire. This was true ever since 1914, or perhaps earlier, but no modern military has fully caught up with this reality. Only terrorists groups and irregulars have, and they are ahead of the power curve in this regard. The United States faces adversaries that serve the contradictory purposes of concealment and identification without the use of uniforms at all. In an era of tight budgets, doing away with all formal military attire would save millions of dollars per year. Moreover, it would change the institutional culture of the U.S. Army more so than any previous uniform change enacted by an Army Chief of Staff in the past half century. The other services could follow the Army’s lead with respect to formal uniforms, multiplying these savings. The U.S. Navy in particular would add significantly to the cost-saving measure, considering their sizeable array of formal attire that serves no wartime purpose, as reflected in the higher clothing allowances of its sailors as compared to airmen, Soldiers, and Marines.
As for tactical attire, there should be one uniform for all services. A 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office revealed that the U.S. Army spent $5 billion on the research, development, and production of new uniforms in the past decade. The U.S. Air Force spent a similar, though slightly lower, amount on competing designs. The report went on to estimate that it would cost another $4 billion over the next five years should the Army change its uniforms yet again. Finally, the report urged Congress to mandate that the Department of Defense develop one field uniform for all of the military services in order to reap significant cost savings. If realized, this action would quell the budget politics behind service branding and patenting of uniforms and the wasteful attempts to project service identity through military attire rather than combat roles.
The military profession is not a business organization. It exists for warfighting, and, as such, its members should only wear functional attire suited for the battlefield. Whatever is worn there, minus the armor and other gear, should also be worn in the office—yes, even in high-level dealings with Congress and other formal settings. Leave the business attire for Wall Street. What about the wear of medals, some might ask? Acts of recognition and the presentation of awards should continue, along with the service records that go along with such things, but there is no need for a “bit of colored ribbon” to go along with it all—the Napoleonic era is long gone. Without a service uniform to display awards, the military service might no longer attract those to enter military service for selfish or egotistical reasons. Instead of pride in appearance, service members might instead manifest pride in the ability to perform their various combat functions. And then there might be a hard-working dirty Soldier with a medal after all, as the measure of discipline would no longer be superficial.
Perpetuating formal uniform traditions makes for an army of peacocks; abandoning them might foster a new era, one in which the U.S. Army focuses more on how it fights rather than how it looks. The institution’s true source of uncertainty lies in the fact that it faces adversaries that no longer cling to parade-ground traditions. There was not much difference between formal and tactical military attire in the early 19th century. But this is no longer the case. Only one uniform is necessary in the contemporary era, and this reality is more significant than camouflage patterns. By addressing the paradox of modern military uniforms with multiple forms of attire, the U.S. Army will revert back to shining shoes obsessing over hairstyles while unseen opponents sharpen bayonets. Now is the time to “break starch” once and for all. America can no longer afford two armies. Leaders must choose between having a parade ground army or one that is “composed entirely of young enthusiasts in camouflage battledress.”
Jean Larteguy, The Centurions, (New York: Avon Books, 1963), 266.
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