Save the battle uniforms for combat

Save the battle uniforms for combat
© Getty Images

Afters months of turmoil in Portland, the Pentagon has been pulled into domestic politics once more. The latest controversy is over camouflage. Federal agents converging upon the city in military style uniforms raised calls for clarity amid so many mistaking law enforcement for the military. While federal agents have worn camouflage in the United States, such a pattern was designed for the Army to use in Afghanistan.

Let us save the battle dress uniforms for actual combat. Change needs to start with military leaders in the corridors of the Pentagon. Before the 9/11 attacks, none of the services wore camouflage to work. But then the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps did allow active duty members to wear those uniforms in the capital region. The Navy at first held out.

The distinction is important since combat fatigues carry great symbolism. When the Army had returned to service uniforms at the Pentagon in 2011, the Christian Science Monitor explained that camouflage had been “one way of signaling that though not all forces were deployed to the conflicts overseas, the entire United States military was at war.”

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Utilities at the Pentagon are justified as comfortable or contributing to the cohesion of the joint force. Just this month, however, the Navy and Marine Corps announced their new dress codes. So gone are the flight suits and camouflage utilities in favor of service uniforms worn around Washington at the Pentagon, White House, and State Department.

Military leaders should also get back into professional service uniforms to maintain those distinctions. Had this policy been in place, the unfortunate photo opportunity for the president after clearing the peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square and the extraordinary apology by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff could have probably been avoided.

This important goal for the military should not be limited to Washington. Before 2015, for instance, the Army allowed soldiers to wear camouflage only when traveling in relation to combat theater, such as deployment or amid rest and recuperation leave. After 2015, however, the Army allowed combat fatigues to be worn for other commercial travel.

Meanwhile, federal agents have been sent to the civil unrest in Portland. While active duty military members have not been sent, it can be easy to get them confused. The federal agents are mostly members of domestic law enforcement, such as Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Federal Protective Service. But many of the federal agents have worn misleading military style uniforms in several cities.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper voiced concern that federal agents were mistaken for military members in Portland. After the National Guard was called to Washington earlier this summer, the Pentagon started a review focused on the use of camouflage by law enforcement. It is an issue that bears serious consideration. The public must easily distinguish between law enforcement officers and armed forces. Military settle uniforms send powerful signals, intentional or not, in a civilian context.

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The need for a professional military is consistently affirmed, particularly in the era of a volunteer force. When military uniforms appear in a domestic political setting, they send a message to Americans. It is one reason why the Army uniform that Alexander Vindman wore during the public House impeachment hearings was controversial. Jason Dempsey, a former Army officer, noted that the “outsize symbolism attached to the uniform is like a totem” that people want to use to their own advantage.

A service uniform reminds us that someone defends the nation. Fatigues, developed to save lives during actual combat, are designed for durability, moisture management, temperature regulation, weather resistance, flame resistance, and additional protection during battles. Fatigues also remind us that defending the nation can involve killing and dying for it. Indeed, as General Mark Milley walked through Lafayette Square wearing his combat fatigues, he was singled out in the ensuing media scrutiny.

Combat fatigues might contribute to the cohesion across the services and speak to the enduring mission for the military to protect the country from foreign enemies. However, such benefits must not come at the price of an erosion of the public faith in military leaders and this independent role of the military. It is time for members to hang up the combat fatigues, starch up those collared shirts, and shine those shoes once more.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow based at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. She is a former staff member in Congress and is a former fellow with the Defense Department.