Just as the US troop drawdown in Afghanistan announced by President Obama has been characterized as the beginning of the end of the war, the US Army is making a highly symbolic change that similarly signals an ebb in combat footing.
Starting next month, US Army servicemembers will no longer wear their Army Combat Uniform – or ACU’s, otherwise known as fatigues – around the halls of the Pentagon.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Pentagon-based soldiers began wearing their camouflage uniforms. It was one way of signaling that though not all forces were deployed to the conflicts overseas, the entire US military was at war.
It was then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker’s intent after he took the job in 2003 to “get people to realize that we are in combat,” says the US Army’s top noncommissioned officer, Sgt. Maj. Raymond Chandler – and that the war “wasn’t going to get done with anytime soon.”
The current Army chief of staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, decided that starting in July Army troops at the Pentagon will wear their ASUs – or Army Service Uniforms – considered business attire for troops.
“Everyone understands that we are at war,” Chandler said. “Everyone has been touched by it.” Now, he added, there is a gradual shift within the Pentagon to emphasize “the corporate part of the Army” as well.
This marks a key movement away from “this muddy boots culture that has pervaded everything” in the US military, says retired Col. Charles Allen, professor of cultural science at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
The downside of an extensive emphasis on war fighting is that “sometimes it can take away from the long-term focus of the Army,” Dr. Allen added.
With the drawdown in Afghanistan, “the Army needs to bring back the best and the brightest now fighting the wars and bring them back into the institutional side of the house.”
There will be other uniform changes as well. Soldiers will no longer be required to wear the black beret that has been part of the Army Combat Uniform since 2001.
The beret was not particularly popular among soldiers, and during the decade that it was in use it proved difficult to wear, Allen says. “You couldn’t put it on with one hand, you had to shave it, stand in the shower to get it wet and form it.” On sunny days, it didn’t offer a bill to shield the eyes. “All those things which seemed overburdensome in some cases.”
Dempsey’s decision to change the beret may have been part of his decision to emphasize trust, discipline, and fitness among the soldiers, Allen says. “Changing the uniform is a trust issue – you trust that your leaders will listen to what you want, and that the small things sometimes matter. When you’re trying to do the big things, those small things can sometimes be a foundation.”
Though the decision to move away from the beret has been greeted with enthusiasm, Chandler acknowledges that the decision for soldiers not to wear fatigues at the Pentagon was “an emotional issue” for some. “Frankly there was discussion about whether or not this would take people away from the idea that we were still at war.”
He added that here was a concern among some leaders involved in the discussion that not wearing camouflage uniforms “somehow” means “not being in touch with the soldiers” fighting the war.
Allen adds that, alternately, there may also have been a perception among other services in the Pentagon that chose not to wear fatigues that the Army’s decision to wear ASUs over the years “was dismissive of other services.”
The shift, Allen adds, could be interpreted as a signal that “everybody involved in the defense enterprise is important to the fight – not just those wearing the combat uniforms and their muddy boots."
[Editor's note: The original version of this story used an outdated term for Army Service Uniforms (ASUs).]