This blog post is included in:

No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters

by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler

December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt











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

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Uniforms — 10 Comments

  1. A great look at how uniforms affect us, thank you for the post!

    I think you are right, but I also think that we have learned to put war out of mind as a coping mechanism. Before we had the ability to report on the day to day events of war we were also able to comprehend it, to get behind it, or stand against it. Then there came big media and television, which gave us a clearer picture of what war was, a cloudy picture of why it was fought, and ultimately made the issue significantly less black and white. Realizing that there are grey areas in war, that propaganda is real and affects everyone, well, I think it is an overwhelming realization that one must think critically about these large-scale events; to understand that you may not actually agree with what your country is doing.

    We are simple creatures, at our core we care about what’s for dinner, where we’re going to sleep at night, who pissed us off today…. Lately, the simple life-things have become relatively easy to come by, and we do wrap our minds around more complicated concepts; but we can’t handle a large amount of these at once. Our jobs, which provide us the food and the bed and the warmth we desire, take up a lot of our brain power, and it is in our jobs that we invest most our thought, else we risk losing them.

    I think at the base level we aren’t fully capable of understanding things like war and mass death; we can try, but it is difficult, taxing, and people need to live their lives, and go to work, and earn their bread, so we learn to tune it out, we detach from it so that we don’t have to spend that time and energy figuring out what it means to us. And the men and women in the splotchy pajamas walking around town? We tune them out too, we try not to think about where they’re going, or where they’ve come from; the things they’ve seen. We don’t want to deal with their trauma because that would be admitting to ourselves that something is happening. Instead, we put stickers on our cars.

  2. So far as I can tell, the Army, at least, is going for practicality. Wash and wear, no ironing or polishing. Since they no longer have batmen or servants or wives to do this stuff for them, it’s the easiest way.
    I don’t know if this link will go, but give it a try:

    My son in full dress Army uniform. Modest rows of medals, the ROTC batallion patch on the shoulder — the only notable item is the wings pinned above the medals, won at Aviation school. The fabric is almost certainly permanent press and stain-repellent, although it may call for dry cleaning. You cannot see his shoes, but they are Corfam (or some such equivalent) — never need polishing.

  3. It’s interesting to me that as military uniforms have declined , sports uniforms have moved in the opposite direction from practical and dumpy to sharp. tight-fitting and impressive. More honor (arguably) and money (certainly) flows to athletes as well. Perhaps they serve as our warriors now.

    I vaguely remember some science fiction story I read in the 1970s that posits a society where ritualized sports combat (including death) has literally replaced war. With Ultimate Fighting et. al., perhaps we are realizing that vision.

  4. Before shipping to Vietnam I was in a military training school for a time in the 60’s. In the South. We did a lot of marching, to and from classrooms, to and from the rifle range. The groups of trainees would compete in singing marching songs. “Left, right, left, right, Jody’s with your mama, coming back tonight,” like that. Some of those Southern guys sounded just like Ray Charles. I loved that part of each day. Then we got a new drill sergeant. He was nicknamed “Pineapple” because he was from Hawaii. He had been in Vietnam. His first day, we started into our marching song, and he yelled at us to shut up. Back at our barracks, he called a meeting to tell us there would be no more singing. Bitterly, he said this. Like he could hardly form the words to tell us about the hateful thing we had been doing. For a long time I thought he probably got that bitterness from seeing his buddies die in Vietnam. But I think Pineapple was just being himself. Some people take what is human and alive, and make it crawl in fear, or strut like a bully. Nothing else counts, certainly not singing. Not all soldiers are like Pineapple. But our wars are that way. If you are going to one of our wars don’t dress for singing, nor for laughing, or for courage or for much of anything. You are going there to scare people or kill them. Or possibly to be scared or killed. The uniform goes with that.

  5. There is a reason why World War II was so forward in peoples thinking and our wars since have not been; Economics. WWII was the last time the cost of the war exceeded what the government could take from the economy without pain. There has been no need for rationing, bond rallies, or government management of the economy to focus it on war production. We have fought smaller wars and we have become much richer. I’m not sure we are wiser.

  6. The dress uniforms are still spendy, but they cannot be as expensive as the gold-bullion epaulettes or the fur shakos of earlier military uniforms, so I suppose we must be grateful. For certain occasions however the full dress kit is absolutely required.
    About six years ago then-President Bush decided to swear in a bunch of graduating ROTC cadets. There were going to be 2 from every state and territory of the union. Somebody then insisted on throwing in the Ivies as well, and I am tell that George Shultz got Stanford onto that list. So with about two days’ notice my daughter’s ROTC batallion had to fish up a top cadet to send to the White House. The very best cadet of the bunch was a guy who -had no dress uniform- on hand. For her part, Diana had just received a munificent Christmas present from her overindulgent parents: of dress greens. The entire batallion scrambled to red her up with the proper insignia and decorations, and shoved her onto the plane.

  7. Young people born in this post-punk era may think camo and combat boots are sexy, dress uniforms are dumb and dull.

    I know, I have a young lady of 16 who, it seems, wears her camo jacket even while showering. She certainly lives, studies, sleeps, and parties in it. And the only way she’d ever go to any war would be as a nurse.

  8. Not only are uniforms sloppy, the whole US population has become sloppy. If one looks at the crowds at an airport, the only people who look sharp are the flight crews. Downtown, only businessmen and women on weekdays look well-dressed, and not even on Fridays. The rest of us are in sweats or jeans or loose knits.

    The social pressure that existed in the forties, to dress to an acceptable standard, doesn’t exist anymore. Who dresses decently anymore to go to the store? Not to mention the symphony. Often I deplore this trend, but not always.

    My mother taught me that a lady isn’t dressed without a hat and gloves, but I like to be comfortable. Hose, heels, belts? Ironing? No thank you. I wear scrubs at work, not a crisp white uniform. I will dress well for an event, but I sometimes feel I’m wearing a costume.

    So I see the change in uniforms more as a symptom of the culture than an attitude toward war.

  9. I remember when one dressed up to fly on an airplane — hose and heels. Knights were bold in those days, and the dinosaur roamed the earth.

  10. Hey none of my friends here are thinking, wars waged currently are “Out of mind”.
    We are as sick of this militarism going on as you were, when you wrote every anti war sentiment you ever wrote. As for the arms race, brrrr ugh zany strangelove type people.