Why I Shaved My Beard, and Why You Should Too
Let’s be clear – I love beards. I’m happy that I got a genetic lottery ticket that lets me a grow a big red beard just like my dad used to have. In the winter, beards keep the wind off your face, in the summer, they do the same for bugs. Properly maintained, they look good, too. Somehow, without a beard, I manage to look a bit older and more haggard. I was sorry to see my beard go.
But it was time to go. When the grooming regulations were changed in 2018 I quickly grew a wonderful red mask, and I’ve had two solid winters protected from the cold. Even then, however, some of the early problems with the beard policy bubbled up. Many people simply can’t grow a beard, and sergeants-major had to spend a lot of time chasing people down and giving them the unfortunate news that they looked like garbage. A lot of people grew a respectable beard, then let standards slip, so there were plenty of people with bulky-poorly-groomed fair on their faces. Offenders could point to the 2 centimetres of bulk rule to claim that their wayward whiskers were just fine. Though I have no real evidence of it, I imagine a significant number of emails, printed memoranda, and minute sheets went up and down various chains of command protesting a local beard policy or defending a scraggly face blanket. Beards seem to have become a bizarre symbol of concession from the army. In the decade following Afghanistan, tours have become less frequent. Recruitment was down, retention was down, morale – though hard to judge – likely sunk overall in the absence of a clear mission to focus on. For many, I suspect, beards have become a formal recognition that the army needs them more than they need the army, and they want to show it. It’s difficult to think of a more toxic mindset. On joining the military, you necessarily give up a significant chunk of your freedoms. On a very basic level, the concept of unlimited liability means you give up your fundamental Charter right to security of person. Don’t let recent babble about the advancements in cyber and information operations fool you – we will still have to fight, and fight hard, to win. We’ve been down the technological rabbit hole before. Weapons advancements in the early 20th century were supposed to make war deadly, but quick. It dragged on for three years of brutal trench fighting and finished with an even deadlier war of movement. Air power was the promise to end wars without battles. Between 1939 and 1945, soldiers in their millions and tanks in their tens of thousands disabused us of that notion. The Gulf War was supposed to show us that precision-guided munitions could end a war via video-feed, and yet, we’ve been dealing with long insurgencies and the Ukrainians have had to contend with massed rocket artillery. As much as we might like to think that cyber capabilities, new weapons, and information operations on Twitter might make human conflict more abstract and less deadly, war will eventually remind us that it’s a dangerous, dirty, and lethal business. Winning these fights requires discipline and cohesion. And, trust me as an historian on this one, we might go the next twenty years in boring but comfortable garrison duty or go to war next week. Democratic societies almost never see war coming, or if it is coming, will wait to last possible minute to accept the reality – me included. This means we have to be ready if not materially, at least mentally. The last person I want on my flank is someone with a sense of entitlement.
David Currie, VC. Currie won his VC for capturing and defending St.Lambert-Sur-Dives during the drive to close the Falaise Gap in August 1944. Currie and his small force took heavy casualties while repelling repeated, desperate counter-attacks from retreating German forces over 36 hours. This is who I want on my flank! Of course, wars are not fought solely by militaries, but by societies. Unfortunately, beards have become a symbol of a unhealthy segment of popular culture. As Nate Powell captures in their compelling webcomic, beards have been adopted by a segment of the civilian population – and yes, often a vet-bro segment with misleading allusions to special forces experience – that represent an undemocratic ethic. Though I think Powell stretches his analysis a little far, it’s difficult to argue that the “vet beard” has, in some cases, re-inserted itself back into military culture, along with the “Spartan” or “warrior” patches – aesthetics that don’t speak to the idea of citizens in uniform. In 2018, for example, the incoming Australian CDS, LGen Angus Campbell, banned the use of “death symbols” like the Punisher skull and Spartan imagery – graphics which often accompany beards – because they “[are] always ill-considered and implicitly encourag[e] the inculcation of an arrogant hubris and general disregard for the most serious responsibility of our profession; the legitimate and discriminate take of life.” Ironically, we need to shave beards off for deployment, meaning that they’re even more of a comic book symbol than we might think. An operational solider or sailor can’t have a beard. So what are we play-acting at? Whether we like it or not, beards have become mixed in with a power fantasy that we have to leave behind us. Although many with a beard likely carry no ill intention – I certainly didn’t – it speaks to a degree of freedom from rules and freedom from norms that comes out of the bearded Punisher aesthetic. From the perspective of the CAF, it speaks to an effort to fix sagging morale and retention not with a close repair of the foundation, but simply plastering over the cracks in the walls. The cracks have gotten too wide. Of course, removing the plaster won’t fix the problem. But, perhaps, going back to a clean-shaven look might encourage us to begin a fundamental rethink of how and why leaders in the CAF build and maintain the legitimacy to command soldiers in peace and war.
I am not calling for a reversal of the beard policy. On a simple time management level, we wasted far too much administrative horsepower implementing the policy when we obviously had better things to do. On another level, however, the idea of willingly returning to a clean-shaven look send a stronger signal – we have to admit that, as a corporate body, we’ve been distracted for some time, and we need to return to doing the simple, sometimes uncomfortable, but necessary things, and we need to do so consistently. It’s with this in mind that I encourage my fellow beard-growing officers to start shaving again as a very small first step of doing what will be the very difficult, very long task of fixing the foundation.
That's enough for now. It's time to buckle down and get back to the important work. Pandemic pending, maybe I'll get a haircut, too.