Leadership: Lifestyle Police Terrorize U.S. Troops

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August 2, 2014: A common complaint in the American military, especially by the men and women who expect to be under fire when ordered into action, is the pervasive “peacetime mentality” that exists most of the time. What annoys the warriors is the senior leadership obsession with political correctness and not offending anyone, often at the expense of combat readiness or troop morale. The peacetime mentality faded a bit after September 11, 2001 but once American troops were out of Iraq in 2011 peacetime standards of behavior were returning. This happened despite the fact that many U.S. troops were still in Afghanistan.

By 2012 new army regulations imposed more restrictions on how troops could look. That meant more conservative haircuts, shaving every day (even when off duty), fewer tattoos, and no visible piercings. Male troops could not wear earrings at any time. No dental decorations, including gold caps. For female troops this meant less makeup and dyed hair and shorter fingernails. There were also restrictions on what kind of civilian clothes could be worn on base. There were also a bunch of other petty restrictions, all intended to improve the appearance of the troops. The other services (except for the marines) had continued to suffer from a lot of this stuff after September 11, 2001, much to the annoyance of air force and navy personnel who served in the combat zones and then returned home to the world of many petty rules.

While fighting continued in Afghanistan, back home the lifestyle police in the U.S. Army were back in business. Senior officers and NCOs who were dismayed at the usual wartime reduction in appearance standards were talking openly about putting more emphasis on marching and similar drills, as well as greater attention to wearing uniforms correctly and saluting every time you are supposed to. More effort was being directed at improving appearances. On the positive side there was growing emphasis on being physically fit, with more soldiers discharged for being too fat or unable to pass the physical fitness test.

But overall, emphasis shifted from being combat ready to appearing (especially to politicians and the media) combat ready. The troops have long called this "mickey mouse" (or a lot of less printable phrases). The troops don't like it but the senior officers and NCOs do. This time around the brass promised to change promotion standards to see that more pro-mickey mouse officers and NCOs rose in the ranks. This meant going to the right service schools and getting the right assignments, as well as looking and acting like a good soldier should. It's the old "getting your ticket punched" mentality again.

During wartime the lifestyle police still try to take control but are stymied by wartime realities. For example, back in 2006, the U.S. Army was forced to back off on its "zero tolerance" rules on tattoos. "Zero tolerance" meant that if you had any tattoo showing (when you are dressed, wearing a long sleeve shirt, and long pants) the army would not take you. But after turning away so many otherwise qualified recruits the army changed the rule to allow innocuous tattoos to be showing. Moreover, the army didn't set any precise standards about what was acceptable and what was not. Enforcement was a judgment thing, with recruiters and staff at basic training centers often disagreeing over what was acceptable. The brass increasingly allowed recruiters to have the final say. After all, if the guys (and some gals) with visible tattoos, as a group, made good soldiers the tattoo policies themselves might be in danger. But now that fewer proven warriors are required the trend has moved towards appearance. In peacetime this is important because there is no trial by combat to prove who can fight and how well. Many of the warriors, the guys who can really fight and have proven it, get out of the military as the Mickey Mouse returns.

 


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