It’s no secret that members of the Armed Forces have to follow a strict set of guidelines about how they present themselves. This includes facial hair, although the rules have changed over time, and they differ around the world. The ability to grow a beard is often considered a sign of masculinity and strength, which are terms often associated with members of the military, but how does this fit in to the military way of life?
During the 18th and 19th Centuries, beards were commonplace in militaries around the world. Find any picture of an American Civil War General, and chances are he’s sporting some rather impressive whiskers. The existence of facial hair even went as far as having shaving above the top lip banned for British soldiers after the Crimean War, which effectively made mustaches compulsory.
It wasn’t until the First World War that beards in the military became much less common, and for good reason. With the advances in chemical warfare, facial hair presented a very real risk to lives, as it could have caused gaps in the seals on gas masks. It was at this point that beards were prohibited.
This ban still applies for many forces around the world. It was briefly abolished in 1970 for acting U.S. Navy personnel by Elmo Zumwalt, who was Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) at the time. According to Zumwalt, ‘we must learn to adapt to changing fashions. I will not countenance the rights or privileges of any officers who enlisted men being abrogated in any way because they choose to grow sideburns or neatly trimmed beards or moustaches or because preferences in neat clothing styles are at variance with the taste of their seniors’. As accommodating as this was, it seems a little liberal and at odds with the strict guidelines in place today which promote discipline, uniformity and camaraderie. Incidentally, the ban on Naval beards was reinstated fourteen years later by James D. Watkins, who had taken over the CNO position.
Despite beards not being permitted in many countries’ militaries, the rules have been relaxed in certain situations. Troops from many countries, including the United States, Britain and Denmark, have been allowed to grow facial hair while on operations in Afghanistan. This is a tactical move in order to grow relations between the Armies and the local Afghan people, where beards are seen as a sign of power and masculinity.
Furthermore, several groups within the U.S. military have been permitted to grow beards while on home soil, as well. This includes men who need to grow beards for medical or religious reasons, although it is not a blanket rule; each person needs to apply individually and it is reviewed on a case by case basis. If a man has a skin condition which is aggravated by shaving then he may be granted leniency, as would Sikhs, Muslims, Rabbis, and members of other religions who grow facial hair. In the case of Sikhs, they have also been permitted to leave their hair ‘unshorn’, as long as it is covered by turbans; other religions can request to wear other items of clothing in the same way, if it is for religious reasons.
These guidelines vary around the world. In some countries such as India and Spain, beards and moustaches are permitted, but in others (including the United States and England), members of the Armed Forces are required to be clean shaven. Within the military, the beard has had a colorful history, from the flamboyant sideburns and handlebar moustaches from centuries gone by, to the neatly trimmed beards which are only occasionally allowed today. There’s no question that being clean shaven makes our troops look smart and like a cohesive team, but it would be a shame to see originality in the form of facial hair disappear from military history altogether.