The United States went to war with Germany and Japan when I was a kid of eleven. One of the things I remember is how – overnight, it seemed to me — the streets of Berkeley filled up with uniforms. All during the war, men in civvies were in the minority downtown. But the uniforms didn’t bring uniformity into the city. If anything they were an improvement on the drab, same-old clothing of the end of the Great Depression.
The Army and Army Air Force wore khaki in various shades of brown, greenish, and tan: handsome jackets, creased pants, shined black shoes, all very trim. But never quite a match for the Navy uniforms, the gobs in their white tunics and pants and little round white hats in summer, and in winter, blue wool tunics with a sailor collar and pants with a thirteen-button, square flap fly, I kid you not. Cute little round butts looked terrific in that uniform. And the officers in their crisp white or navy blue, gold buttons, gold braid, were a breed apart, sharp as tacks. There were no Marine bases near Berkeley that I know of, anyway we didn’t see Marines around much, but they looked quite grand in the newsreels.
My brother Clif’s ship was commissioned in San Francisco Harbor and we went to the ceremony: a fine show, formal, traditional, embellished by those dandy dress uniforms. The men looked terrific lined up there on the deck, all blue and white and gold in the sun. What boy wouldn’t want to look like that, and be seen looking like that by everybody?
A uniform, ever since the eighteenth century when they first really started inventing them, has been known as a powerful aid to recruitment.
I can’t say that that was true for the uniforms women got handed in WWII. They imitated the men’s, of course, with skirts instead of pants, but were poorly designed, the taut, snappy look becoming tight and stiff on women; even granted the severe rationing of cloth, the uniforms were unnecessarily skimpy, prim, and awkward. I certainly wouldn’t have joined the WAVES or the WAC for the uniform, only in spite of it. Fortunately for the WAVES, the WAC, and me, I was fifteen when the war ended.
During the next several American wars, the whole concept of the uniform evolved away from good fit and good looks towards a kind of aggressively practical informality, or sloppiness, or slobbishness. By now our soldiers are mostly seen in shapeless, muddy-looking spotted pajamas.
This uniform may be useful and comfortable in the jungles of Viet Nam or the deserts of Afghanistan. But do men need camouflage when flying from Reno to Cincinnati, or combat boots on Fifth Avenue? I guess soldiers still have dress uniforms — I know the Marines do, they seem to put them on way more often than the other services, maybe because they get so many photo ops in D.C. — but I can’t remember when I last saw an Army private on the street looking sharp.
I know that for many boys and men, camo has taken on the glamor that a handsome uniform once had. Grotesque as it appears to me, it looks manly and fine to them. So I guess the uniform still serves as an aid to recruitment, luring the boy who wants to wear it, look like that, be that soldier. And I don’t doubt that young men wear it with pride.
But I wonder very much about the effect of the camo-pajama uniform on most civilians. I find it not only degrading but disturbing that we dress up our soldiers in clothes suitable to jail or the loony bin, setting them apart, not by looking good, looking sharp, but by looking like clowns from a broken-down circus.
This whole change in style of uniforms may be part of a change in our style of war, and with it a changed attitude towards service in the military.
Possibly it reflects a newly realistic opinion of war, a refusal to glamorize it. If we cease to see war as an inherently noble and ennobling thing, we cease to put the warrior on a pedestal. Handsome uniforms then seem a mere parade, a false front for the senseless brutality of behavior in war. So “fatigues” can be grossly utilitarian, with no thought for the appearance or self-esteem of the wearer. Anyhow, now that most war is waged not between armies but by machines killing civilians, what’s the meaning of a military uniform at all? Didn’t the child dead in the ruins of a bombed village die for her country just as any soldier does?
But I can’t believe the Army thinks that way, that it’s making uniforms ugly in order to encourage us to think war is ugly. Perhaps the fatigue uniform reflect an attitude they aren’t conscious of and would never admit, a change less in the nature of war than in our national attitude to it, which is neither glamorising nor realistic, but simply uncaring. We pay very little attention to our wars or to the people fighting them.
Right or wrong, in the 1940’s we honored our servicemen. We were in that war with them. Most of them were draftees, some quite unwilling ones, but they were our soldiers and we were proud of them.
Right or wrong, since the 1950’s and particularly since the 70’s we began putting whichever war was on at the moment out of sight and out of mind, and with it, the men and women fighting it. These days they’re all volunteers. Yet — or therefore? — we disown them. We give them pro forma praise as our brave defenders, send them over to whichever country we’re fighting in now, keep sending them back over, and don’t think about them. They aren’t us. They aren’t people we really want to see. Like the people in jails, the people in loonybins. Like clowns that aren’t funny, from a third-rate circus we wouldn’t think of going to.
Now shall we talk about how much we pay, how we are bankrupting our future, to keep that circus going?
No. That’s not something we talk about. Not in Congress. Not in the White House. Not anywhere.
25 February 2011
King Dog: A Movie for the Mind’s Eye is now available at the Book View Cafe eBookstore.