In defense of beards and Sikhs

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In defense of beards and Sikhs

It amazes me sometimes how few people know about the Sikhs, and how what some people think they know turns out to not be even slightly accurate.  Case in point was something that happened right after the September 11 attacks in DC.  I was walking down the street and there was a guy walking next to me.  People were still a bit jittery (understandably so) and I was no less so.  I'm hypervigilant under the best of circumstances, and this was about the worst.  Around a corner coming towards me was a gentleman in a turban.  The guy walking next to me starting yelling at the guy in the Turban telling him to stop attacking our people.  Seeing that the man in the Turban was about to cross the street to get away from the yeller, I turned to this guy and said "Dude, he's a Sikh, not a Muslim."  The "yeller" turned and said "I agree man, it is sick."

If there are a people who have historically fought against the Muslims with such ferocity as the Sikh's, I don't know who that would be.  So it was somewhat perplexing for me, and probably more so to this Sikh, why he was being blamed for something he clearly had no part of.

Anyway, I was thinking of it today because of this excellent piece in the National Review Online:

An epidemic of pogonophobia is upon the land – pogonophobia being the irrational fear of beards. It comes in response to a Pentagon directive that gives some latitude to U.S. troops who wear beards — and turbans, and yarmulkes — for religious reasons. The usual rabble was out in force, complaining that the military is knuckling under to liberal sensibilities: “PC gone mad,” one conservative blogger put it, arguing that the change comes “thanks to Obama’s love of Muslims.” The sentiment was repeated elsewhere. With apologies to WilliSchlamm, sometimes the problem with conservatism is conservatives.

The main group of people seeking the change were not Muslims but Sikhs....


Those who know me have seen that I often sport a fairly long beard.  I started it when I went to Afghanistan as a journalist, largely because I didn't want the guys to think I was trying to blend in with them too much.  I didn't want people to think I was acting like I was in the Army, I was there to cover it.  Now I have a habit of growing one anytime I am leaving to go to a military embed.  It came in handy last year when an Air Force Captain thought that the beard would make a a great OPFOR (opposing force) guy for their exercise.  Because of the beard I got to play bad guy for 2 weeks with the Pararescue Jumpers and some Marine recon guys. (Who shot me before I even got rounds off.)

Historically there was a fairly good reason for not allowing beards, you just can't get a good seal on the protective mask.  That is less and less of an issue now.  My pro-mask hung on a hook the entire time I was deployed in Afghanistan, and most the time wasn't even on the same base as me. 

The author of the NRO piece, Kevin Williamson (not the excellent Sci Fi author) makes a case for beards:

American special-forces troops wear beards today, partly to blend in to local populations and partly because they often operate far from running water and fresh Mach 3 cartridges. If you made a photo collage of the American military leaders who had kicked the most tail, you’d have a pogonophobe’s nightmare: The hirsute General Sherman was an absolute terror, General Greene sported an extravagant beard while defending Culp’s Hill, General Grant had a conservative 19th-century beard, and they were all under the direction of a commander-in-chief whose facial hair would have made Brooklyn proud. On the other side, they were facing a bearded General Lee, and J. E. B. Stuart’s famous encirclement of the Union Army was not slowed down by his full-Santa facial hair. Lieutenant General John McAllister Schofield’s beard reached to his navel, and it didn’t stop him from stomping the Rebels into paste at Franklin and Nashville.

The Spartans thought so highly of their beards that shaving was a standard punishment for cowardice.

Whenever I saw a beard overseas, it was a good bet that the dude sporting it was one of the special kids who did more before 9 am than I did before age 40.  Kevin is a huge supporter of the relaxed standards for the same reason I am:

I’m an admitted Sikhophile...Drawn by our free economy and open society, many of the finest sons and daughters of India have made America their home. Some of them wear beards and turbans. Some of them are ready to put their lives in jeopardy in defense of their country, its Constitution, and its principles. To exclude them is not only un-American and far removed from historical military norms — including our own — it is foolish. We want the very best, and free societies are best defended by free men. The military aesthetic of the Eisenhower era is not the only acceptable one.

Some still argue it is PC, but again, I agree with Kevin.  Listen to this NPR story, and let me know what you think.


And if you've never read about the battle of Saragarhi where 21 Sikhs held off 10,000 Pashtun Afghans, you should look it up.  It is their version of Thermopylae and the Alamo, and one heck of a story of bravery and heroism.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.