Ulysses S. Grant had a pretty great beard. So did Robert E. Lee. And John G. Walker. Come to think of it, most of the military men of centuries gone by rocked some crazy cool facial hair. Today, however, growing facial hair in the military is pretty much a nonstarter. It seems like facial hair in the various branches of US Armed Forces is a little bit like Kristen Stewart’s career – it was hot and oft celebrated for a long while, then it sort of disappeared, and no one asks what happened. Fear not, fellow beardsman, I’m here to answer this question for all inquiring minds.
Kristen Stewart is terrible.
Now, onto the facial hair in the US Armed Forces question. Without any further ado, I give you – A (very) brief history of facial hair in the Armed Forces.
Wearethemighty.com recently published an article entitled “The Good Ol’ Days When You Could Rock A Beard in the US Military” which discusses the timeline of facial hair in the Armed Forces.
According to the article, for the first 60+ years of the Navy’s existence, there were no real grooming standards laid out, and by 1812 sideburns became fashionable and thus a commonly sported look by Navy men.
The Army was a little stricter. Defensemedianetwork.com published a report that says that beards were strictly forbidden in the Army, and soldiers were required to shave three times per week. Then in 1801 the commanding general of the Army, Major General James Wilkinson decided that was a stupid rule and eliminated it, and beardstaches, epic beards, and muttonchops became the norm. Have you guys seen Ambrose Burnside? That’s a General I’m going to follow into battle without hesitation.
Through the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries, sailors were allowed longer hair and beards as long as they remained neatly trimmed, and according to reports, sailors in colder climates were allowed longer beards, and those in submarines had more lax grooming standards because of the lack of fresh water onboard. At this time, the Army’s ground soldiers were also pretty much left alone in regards to facial hair grooming standards. Then some idiot invented chemical weapons in WWI and ruined things for everyone.
And this is where we get to the bottom of why beards in the military ended up disappearing. Because of the chemical warfare that started to play into battle during the first World War, gas masks became a necessity, and in order to attain a full seal against the wearer’s skin and avoid leaks, the mask must be flush against skin. So that meant a soldier’s options were either shave the beard and avoid sucking in poison, or keep your awesome beard and just look really cool while you get blasted in the face with a mouthful of tear gas.
In fact, this was such a serious change in dress code policy that soldiers were given razors in their GI kits so that they could shave even when in the field. Once this practice was put into place, a completely shaven soldier became the Army norm.
The Navy held off for a while longer. According to the report from wearethemighty.com, in 1970 Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt did away with all grooming and uniform regulations in an effort to raise morale. And it totally worked. Until, according to reports by USNI (United States Naval Institute), “Navy ships began to look like they were crewed by hippies who had crashed their bus into a military surplus store.”
Sounds kind of groovy to me, man.
Then came the ’80’s. Velour, parachute pants, Miami Vice, and the end of facial hair in the Navy. In 1984, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. James D. Watkins put a permanent ban on beards, and thus ended an era of facial hair on submarines.
Today, there are only a few branches in which grooming standards are relaxed enough to allow longer hair and beards, namely Navy SEALS and Special Ops operatives. The reason? Consensus points to “social camouflage” – allowing these undercover operatives in hostile territories to blend into the surroundings and the local culture more easily.