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Why The Army Wants To Ban Tattoos

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


In a culture where even soccer moms now sport tattoos and soccer-themed “tramp stamps” (click the links for some examples), the Army’s recent decision to ban all visible tattoos has prompted a “WTF?” heard round the world.

Just watch the video above.

But there’s method to the Army’s madness. This is just one small step in the service’s campaign to raise standards and discipline after it opened the floodgates to felons, high school dropouts, and other dubious recruits when it boosted its ranks at the height of the Iraq war.

Current regulations ban tattoos only on the face unless they’re “extremist, indecent, sexist or racist”: no swastikas or naked ladies, sorry, but almost anything else goes. On Saturday, however, Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler told troops in Afghanistan that the service was about to ban them on the neck, below the elbows, or below the knees. The ban means, in essence, no tattoos anywhere they’d be visible on a soldier wearing short sleeves and shorts. The service may well let some soldiers already in uniform keep their ink, but new recruits may have to pay out of their own pockets to get offending tattoos removed.

Why should ink disqualify you from being a soldier?  “Is being willing to die for your country not good enough?” the commentator on the video asks (fast-forward to 0:45). “Does the military just have a surplus of people sitting around that they can be this choosey?”

Well, actually, it does. Between the end of the Iraq war, the drawdown in Afghanistan, and tightening budgets, the military can’t afford all the people it has, let alone the ships, planes, and main battle tanks. In fact, if the ongoing automatic spending cuts called sequestration continue for 10 years, as current law mandates, then the US will not have the firepower to defeat a single major enemy, e.g. North Korea, the chiefs of the Army, Navy, and Air Force told Congress last week. (The Commandant of the Marine Corps was predictably more gung-ho).

As the largest service, the Army is coming down the most. Under current plans, it will shed 80,000 soldiers, going from a wartime high of 570,000 to 490,000 by 2017, a relatively slow downsizing that won’t force the service to kick out too many people who want to reenlist. But that plan isn’t surviving first contact with the budget. Everyone in the Pentagon and Capitol Hill is betting that the service will go below 490, it’s just a question of how low.

“Eventually you’re going to hit a floor,” one general told fellow officers recently at an Army War College conference. His bet was on 380,000 – an additional 110,000-soldier cut – but at least one retired Navy admiral has proposed an Army of 290,000. In the Army’s “Deep Future” wargame, the general noted, the US forces simply “started running out of numbers.” With the service shedding so many soldiers, he said, “[we must] get more out of them because there are going to be fewer of them.”

Part of that process is being much more selective about who gets to join the Army and stay in the Army and who doesn’t. During the Iraq build-up, the Army started granting more and more “waivers” for recruits who didn’t meet official standards. Some had medical conditions, some had drug and alcohol problems, some had misdemeanors on their records; some were convicted felons — 901 of them in 2006 alone. “Moral waivers” for criminal convictions and drug problems more than doubled, from less than 5 percent in 2003 to almost 12 percent in 2007. The number of recruits who hadn’t finished high school rose from under 10 percent in 2004 to 28 percent in 2007. Today, however, the Army has stopped giving what it now calls “behavioral waivers” altogether and 99 percent of new recruits have high school diplomas.

So now the service is starting to tighten up on other relatively little standards, such as visible tattoos, that it considers prejudicial to “good order and discipline.” That doesn’t mean the Army is trying to stamp out individuality. To the contrary, the service is extremely interested in new forms of mental and physical testing that would it allow it to tailor training to individuals’ learning styles and assign the jobs that best fit their individual strengths.

Currently, “we don’t work that way,” said one Army science & technology official at the recent War College war game. “We train everybody the same way, we want them to be able to perform the same way.” Now the scientists and the trainers have to prove to the guys who build the budget that “attention to individuals will actually pay off for the Army.”

The Army’s most important – and most expensive – investment is in its people, said one general: “The things we can influence the most are the people we recruit.”

What do you think?