Air Force

November 16, 2012

Facial hair tradition in military goes way back

Senior Airman LIAM MILBURN
56th Medical Operations Squadron

There has always been a long-standing tradition of facial hair in the military. Over the centuries this tradition has evolved depending on the style and demand of the times. The Civil War saw some of the great military commanders sporting full beards that would put ZZ Top to shame. This trend most likely would have continued were it not for an inventive style of combat developed during World War I – gas warfare.

The Battle of Ypres in April 1915 saw the first use of poison gas as a weapon in modern warfare. This led to the advent of more sophisticated gas masks. Anyone who has been deployed remembers going for a gas mask fit test to ensure a proper seal. If there was any significant facial hair, it would impede that seal. So began the trend away from facial hair.

The Navy and Coast Guard held out longer, but eventually ended the custom of the salty sailor with an epic beard. Not even the submariners would be allowed to rock the Das Boot.

Civilian life at this time exhibited major leaders of business, art and entertainment all sporting very fashionable facial hair. Well-known business men such as Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick had full beards. Kings of industry Andrew Mellon and John D. Rockefeller both sported full mustaches. Painter Salvador Dali was famous for his irreverent mustaches. It is, of course, impossible to forget Chaplin and Groucho Marx, of whom both donned “toothbrush” mustaches; although the latter phoned his in.

Then WWII happened. All of those returning clean cut GIs entering the workforce gave a new look to professionalism. The military then continued with this “new” professional look with its officers and NCOs acting as role models for younger service members.
Should they decide not to make a career of the military, they at least entered the workforce with an understanding of what a young professional should look like.

There are two exceptions to facial hair in the military. The first is a medical exemption for those who develop painful razor bumps (pseudofolliculitis barbae). It is a painful skin condition that is exacerbated by the act of shaving and can lead to infection. There is also a religious exemption for many Muslims, Jews and Sikhs who do not shave their faces. This exemption for devote members who wish to serve both their faith and their country, shows an acknowledgement of the ever-expanding multicultural military.

While the personal desires of this writer is to rock a pair of mutton chops that would put Gen. Ambrose Burnside to shame, I understand that my duty comes first. I must put aside a personal desire in order to maintain a professional demeanor.




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