The Army’s New Uniform Could Not Have Come at a Better Time
The Army has a long and proud tradition of professional independence, it fights the nation’s wars and avoids domestic conflicts. Over the last few decades that image has eroded with the proliferation of military gear to law enforcement agencies. The presence of camouflaged individuals countering recent protests demonstrates how the lines are blurring between military and law enforcement. Concerned with this erosion in appearance, the Navy and Marine Corps recently made uniform adjustments that push them away from combat and towards professionalism. The Army has been unable to react as quickly. A major reason can be found in their current uniform line-up.
Currently, there are two uniforms in the closet of any American soldier. One is the OCP uniform. OCP stands for Operational Camouflage Pattern and is the standard working uniform of the US Army. Whether sitting in an office or on a combat deployment, this is the norm. The second type is the ASU, or Army Service Uniform. ASUs are for formal events. This includes balls, funerals, or any occasion in which something more formal than camouflage is required. Senior officers testifying before congress is a prime example.
This leaves soldiers with only two appearance choices: war or a black-tie affair. Imagine being a manager at a construction firm and being limited to jeans or a tuxedo. This presents a problem for meetings at the office. You are either comfortable and underdressed or extremely overdressed. Odds are, you would pick the jeans for all but the most important occasions. Especially if everyone else was wearing jeans. This is the Army’s problem. They did try a few fixes. Each ASU is issued with a necktie and bowtie. The intent was the necktie be worn in the day and the bowtie during formal evening arrangements. Unsurprisingly, this minor variation does not dramatically alter the formality of the ASU. Their second fix was a thing called Class Bs. The Class B is an ASU without the jacket. All the accouterments from the jacket are moved down to a white long or short sleeve shirt. They are terrible and look like what they are: A degraded ASU. With some exceptions, they are only used in hot weather environments.
Enter the new Army Green Service Uniform. Scheduled to enter every soldier’s closet in 2021, these new uniforms are often referred to as “pinks and greens” in a nod to the WW2 uniforms that inspired their look. These will slot into the middle ground between the OCP and ASU uniforms. Despite what many think, Army officers and senior NCO’s spend most of their time in an office while the force is in garrison. There are also many non-deploying and public-facing roles in the Army where professional appearance is important. Recruiters and Pentagon staffers are two examples. The Army Green Service Uniform will be the Army’s equivalent to the business suit.
This is not a new concept. Army service uniforms were the norm for years. But as the Global War on Terror dragged on, combat fatigues replaced them in daily use. Part of the reason was symbolic: fatigues represented a nation at war. But practical reasons were also at play. From 2001 on, most Army units were either in the Middle East, recovering from the Middle East, or training for the Middle East. A business suit had no place in such a high OP tempo environment. That has changed and recent events prove it.
On June 1st, General Milley walked with President Trump to St. John’s Episcopal Church wearing his OCP uniform. The backlash was immediate. Here was the top military officer walking down an American street in combat fatigues. The optics were bad and frequently commented on. People took to Twitter calling it shameful, and journalists fretted that the military would be used to quash future domestic unrest. But the reality is less sinister. General Milley likely had no idea the photo op was coming, he was just wearing what was comfortable for working extremely long days. How many White House staffers wear tuxedos on regular basis? So when General Milley was notified that the event was happening and he was coming along, he just went. No military officer is going to tell the President of the United States to wait while they change uniforms.
Then, on July 17th, pictures began appearing of unidentified federal agents patrolling Portland wearing fatigues reminiscent of Army OCPs. Later identified as Customs and Border Patrol agents, the gear they were wearing was not military issue. But one can be forgiven for not distinguishing it from the OCPs General Milley was wearing on June 1st. This is the continuation of a trend of militarization in law enforcement agencies at all levels. It creates the risk that American citizens will view all these organizations as one and the same. But they are not. Law enforcement and the Army are two wildly separate entities. Law enforcement exists to serve and protect the citizens of the United States. The Army is an organization that exists for the singular purpose summed up in the Soldier’s Creed:
I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.
No American should be engaging another in close combat, but we stand at a time when local and federal police departments have co-opted the look of the Army. This leads people to wonder what fight the law enforcement officers are looking for. Alternatively, it can breed dystopian fears that it is the Army itself on the streets. Both concerns negatively influence citizens’ trust in the organizations and the government that controls them.
A uniform will not solve all of these problems, but the utilization of the Army Green Service Uniform will differentiate the Army from law enforcement and reinforce its image as a professional, apolitical organization that serves at the behest of its citizens. That change is being driven from the highest levels of Army leadership. On June 11th, General Milley appeared in front of cameras to apologize for taking part in the photo op. He was wearing pinks and greens.