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Beards and bare legs: This is no longer your grandfather’s military

By Scott Taylor      

I dare say that it is a slippery slope once you start making allowances to accommodate individual tastes in an institution whose core value is disciplined conformity.

Aircraft structures technicians work on a Chinook helicopter during Canada’s mission in Mali on March 24. The Canadian Armed Forces has loosened rules on beards in recent years. Cpl. François Charest photograph courtesy of the Canadian Armed Forces
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OTTAWA—In an attempt to boost recruitment and to shore up retention, the Canadian Armed Forces have recently made changes to regulations regarding the dress and deportment of uniformed personnel.

First, the military allowed male service members to grow beards. Previously it was only sailors on shore duties and personnel in the pioneer section in infantry regiments who were allowed to grow facial hair, with some exceptions. However, during the lengthy deployment in Afghanistan, Canadian special-forces operatives began sporting beards, and the “cool factor” generated by these elite commandos led to the practice being authorized in theatre for other frontline soldiers as a cultural recognition of local Afghan custom.

This trend continued among Canadian special-forces operatives when they deployed to northern Iraq in 2014, and continues to this day despite the fact that the vast majority of Iraqi males are clean-shaven. But I digress.

The fact is that among Canadian servicemen it has become cool to grow a beard, and it coincides with the current hipster wave in Canadian society. To boost morale among those already in uniform and to entice hipster recruits to join, the rules have now been changed, though the military still won’t allow long hipster-style beards—just short ones.

In situations where personnel require the use of gas masks, which traditionally have required a clean-shaven face to create a proper seal, obviously common sense will prevail.

Last week, it was reported that female service members would be allowed to wear their hair in a ponytail. Previous regulations required any hair hanging below the shirt collar to be either braided or worn up in a bun.

Again, it is assumed that in cases where dangling hair could be caught in machinery, practicality will dictate the hairstyle.

The CAF also made it permissible for female personnel to go bare-legged on extremely hot days. Under the previous regulations, nylons were required to be worn at work at all times, regardless of the temperature and resultant discomfort.

An allowance has also been made in the case of female footwear, wherein personnel are now authorized to wear flats, rather than the previously specified five-centimetre heels. The one exception to this remains the prohibited wearing of ballerina-style shoes.

Again, the stated intention of making these dress code amendments is to improve the morale of the currently serving women, and to make the military a more attractive career option for the younger generation of female recruits.

When you throw in the recently revised policies recognizing the legalization of marijuana and the resultant new regulations concerning its use for CAF members, it is safe to say this is no longer your grandfather’s Armed Forces.

I dare say that it is a slippery slope once you start making allowances to accommodate individual tastes in an institution whose core value is disciplined conformity.

Not that I believe we should remain tied to tradition. Were that the case, the CAF would still be flogging soldiers lashed to cannon wheels.

The United States is facing a similar crunch in terms of maintaining its military staffing levels, due to widespread disinterest in the current generation to embark upon a martial career.

In an effort to get recruits in the door, the U.S. has begun to offer signing bonuses of up to US$40,000, as well as incentives to pay off student-loan debts. Last year, the Pentagon spent a whopping US$600-million on signing bonuses.

Even the U.S. Marine Corps has had to start enticing recruits with more cash incentives. More alarmingly, since 2017 it has had to reduce its minimum admission standards and offer 25 per cent more medical, mental health, recreational drug, and misconduct waivers just to meet its minimum staffing levels.

Canada led the way down this path when it set the basic fitness recruitment to zero back in 2006. That’s right, folks: even if you cannot perform a single sit-up, you can still enlist in the CAF. The premise for this is that, should you desire a career in uniform, the military will invest the time and energy required to get you into shape prior to beginning basic training. Canada also upped the maximum age for recruits to 57 years. As long as you can still fulfil a three-year basic engagement before the mandatory retirement age of 60, you can join the CAF.

I still believe that the Canadian military is not just among the best in the world—it is the best in the world. However, I fear that if we change our recruiting ideology from “be all that you can be” to “be what you want to be,” we will soon lose that edge.

People won’t join or stay in the Armed Forces just because they can grow a beard, wear a ponytail, and smoke dope. However, belonging to an elite, professional military formation should generate its own morale boost.

Scott Taylor is the editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps magazine.

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