Leadership: Hair Wars


April 8, 2007: While American military commanders refused to allow troops to grow beards in Afghanistan (where local custom afforded more respect to men with beards), the British have gone the other way. British commandos, including Royal Marines, are allowed to grow beards for service in Afghanistan. Even men of the Royal Air Force Regiment (that provides security for air bases), were allowed to grow beards. The RAF Regiment troops conduct patrols around airfields they protect. They have found that, in Afghanistan, the locals are more helpful when one or more men in the patrol have beards. Afghans often assume Western troops with beards are Moslems, which also helps. On the other hand, adult men who are clean shaven are assumed to be homosexuals, or worse, by many of the bearded Afghans. This is why Afghan men sometimes nudge each other and giggle when a group of heavily armed, but clean shaven, American troops pass by.

Many U.S. commanders believed a proper military appearance, even for Special Forces troops, was more important that adapting to the local culture, being less obtrusive during special operations, and improving relations with Afghans. Actually, some U.S. troops have continued to grow beards. The trick is to do it out in the hills, and stay away from the major bases, like Bagram, where senior, beard-hating, brass tend to dwell. These senior officers rarely get out into the hinterlands, where all the action is. If the beard is not seen by the top guy, the beard doesn't exist. This is also another reason why Special Forces troops are so insistent on not being photographed by journalists.


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