News that the Army is moving to a new, retro, uniform modeled on World War II-era designs got my military friends buzzing. Not so much about the “new” (old) uniform, but all the badges, ribbons, tabs, and related baubles and doodads that adorn U.S. military uniforms today, a topic I’ve written about before at TomDispatch.com and here at BV.
First, the new uniform. World War II was the last “great” war America truly won, so it’s hardly surprising the Army is reaching back to the era of the “greatest generation” and the “band of brothers.” Why not tap nostalgia for that “good” war, when Americans banded together against the Nazis and the Japanese? It’s also consistent with Trump’s message about “Making America Great Again”; we can even substitute “the Army” for “America” and keep MAGA.
For Trump, this mythical “great” America seems to center on the 1950s, whereas for the Army it’s WWII and the 1940s. Still, these MAGA uniforms and hats seem to say the Army and America are currently not great, and that the path to greatness is a retrograde one, a return to the past. (That return apparently does not include a revival of the draft and America’s citizen-soldier tradition.)
But it was an image of Dwight D. Eisenhower that got my military friends buzzing. Ike led the invasion of D-Day and was the architect of victory in Europe as supreme allied commander, yet you’d never know it from his simple, almost unadorned, uniform. Consider the image below of Ike that accompanied the story in the New York Times:
As one of my military correspondents, a retired command sergeant major who fought in the infantry in Vietnam, wrote to me:
[Ike was] A man from a cow town in Kansas, Abilene, who was a lower rung grad at West Point and came back from WW I as a Major. Twenty years later as a LTC enters WW II and comes back a Five Star General, one of only about five ever made and he has two, count them, two tiny rows of ribbons, no hero badges, not even a bolo badge to show what a great marksman he is, no para wings, no ranger tab, no CIB/EIB and FIVE, COUNT THEM, FIVE STARS on his shoulders. He also ran for, won, and was a pretty damned good [Republican president] for eight years. The Generals we have had since, starting with Westy [William Westmoreland] were all losers although they all had badges, ribbons, medals, patches all over their sorry asses BUT no VK medals, no VVN medals, no Victory Medals from any damned place I can think of. Well, maybe Grenada or Panama, or a bar fight in Columbus, GA. Home of Ft Benning… Something to think about, eh?
All those “bells and whistles” on military uniforms today “are like Vanity License Plates for one’s car,” this same command sergeant major noted. Speaking of vanity, a retired colonel told me there’s a company “that’ll miniaturize your ‘rack’ so you can wear your ribbons on your lapel—all of them—when you separate [from the military]. LOOK AT ME: I’M A HERO!”
One thing is certain: We have a ribbon- and badge-chasing military. (General David Petraeus was the worst.) People literally want to wear their “achievements” on their sleeve — or blouse — or jacket, even after they leave the military. Military members chase these baubles. They “achieve.” But what about quieter achievements that you can’t wear? How about integrity, honesty, commitment, fairness? What about intelligence? Dedication to the craft of arms that doesn’t involve getting a fancy badge like jump wings from France?
The Army’s retro-chic uniforms won’t be of any value if we keep valuing the wrong things. A Boy Scout military that keeps chasing merit badges for the sake of promotion of self is a very bad thing, irrespective of uniform design.
Yet there’s another side to all this. As my colonel-friend put it:
Here’s the real cost of this ribbon chasing. There’s an enormous number of man-hours expended on writing and chasing the paperwork to award these doodads… At a time when the military is allegedly overtaxed and burned out, why are they wasting so much effort on this nonsense? Why are some units hiring editors to keep the decorations moving? In survey after survey, AF pilots cited decorations and other administrative nonsense, not deployments, as the reason they don’t want to stay in. But since generals groom and promote only those who think like them (having selected them when they were captains), nothing changes. “You have to take care of your people,” they say, and if you listen to E-9s [the senior enlisted] people are happiest when they get doodads.
As another close military friend put it: “And don’t even get me started on the ridiculous number of ribbons and badges today. A captain today will have as many ribbons as a circa-1944 two-star [general]. [In their new retro uniforms,] they’ll just look like extras in a war movie.”
In sum, a jury of my peers has come back with a verdict on the Army’s new retro uniform: Love the look, but can you please bring back as well the humble citizen-soldiers of Ike’s era, the ones who won wars without all the gratuitous self-promotion?