It’s been wielded as a weapon of intimidation in conflicts throughout history. More recently, it’s been subject to an outright ban by the top brass.
But the beard — only in its most neatly trimmed form, mind you — is enjoying a groundswell of support at the grass-roots/stubble level in militaries around the world, including in the U.S., where a historic recruiting shortfall has left Pentagon leaders scrambling to find new ways to fill the ranks.
While most top military officials still vehemently defend the decades-long status quo on facial hair, some services seem to have cracked open the door to change amid an increasingly vocal protest. An online petition calling on the Army to allow beards, started in 2021, now boasts over 107,000 signatures.
And the movement has stretched well beyond American shores, to some unlikely places. Just months before his death in a still-mysterious airplane explosion last August, Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin blasted the Russian army’s beard ban, calling it an “absurd” policy and saying its supporters are clinging to “archaisms from the 1960s.”
To be fair, few are calling for complete facial hair anarchy. It seems inconceivable that an array of handlebar mustaches, mutton chop sideburns and ZZ Top-style scruff would suddenly become common in the ranks of the planet’s most disciplined fighting forces.
But, using history as a guide, analysts say it’s likely that today’s highly restrictive policies will eventually get a trim.
“I think the standard has always been that they want the military to look clean-shaven. It has to do with looking clean and tidy. But at various points, that has been relaxed,” said Alun Withey, a professor at the University of Exeter who studies the history of male facial hair trends.
“It happened in the 19th century, partly because of ideas about what a manly ideal should be,” he said in an interview. “At various points around the Napoleonic wars and again around the mid-19th century, beards became symbols of the rugged, ultra-masculine guy.”
Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee both sported beards, and a clear majority of their Civil War commanders featured facial hair as well.
“The idea is, you stick these hairy guys at the front of your marching army and it signals to the enemy that these are the guys that are going to kick your ass,” Mr. Withey said, adding that in some instances throughout history, armies even provided false beards to the unfortunate soldiers who couldn’t grow their own.
The U.S. military’s modern beard policy has its roots in the World War I era. Facial hair was seen as an impediment to a properly fitted mask, which would be crucial in the event of a chemical gas attack. For that reason, the Army prohibited beards, kicking off a policy that for the most part has remained in place for over a century. The service does allow beards for religious or medical reasons, along with some neatly trimmed mustaches.
The Air Force has a similar policy, banning full beards with some exceptions, and allowing well-groomed mustaches.
The Navy allowed beards for much of its history but banned them in the mid-1980s, as did the Coast Guard. Those policies mostly brought all of the military services into alignment, creating a more uniform appearance for those in uniform.
Many of the exceptions are on religious grounds. Earlier this year, for example, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of two Sikh Americans seeking to join the Marine Corps without shaving their beards.
And elite Special Forces personnel, famously, enjoy relaxed facial hair standards.
Relax the rules?
The guidelines differ greatly from country to country. NATO ally Canada, for example, allows its troops to have well-groomed beards. So, too, do the Netherlands and Italy. France mostly prohibits beards on its active-duty troops.
In Britain, the Royal Air Force allows beards on a case-by-case basis.
“A request must be made to the commanding officer in writing prior to any member of the RAF growing a beard. Only full beards that are kept short and neatly trimmed will be permitted. The station warrant officer, on behalf of the station commander, will act as the final arbiter of what is, or is not, acceptable,” the policy reads.
The British army also allows beards on an individual basis, though the branch appears much more restrictive, and beards are typically allowed only for religious reasons. But the British army is reportedly revisiting that policy, partly out of hope that allowing bearded men to sign up could help address what’s become a historic recruiting crisis on its side of the Atlantic as well.
In the U.S., proponents say the beard is merely one aspect of what’s been a broader move to re-think and relax certain rules and regulations in the hopes of attracting a wider pool of talent.
“With all of the progressive change in the U.S. Army’s policy on uniform wear and appearance, it is only right that soldiers should be able to grow beards in a garrison environment. If earrings, pony tails, and nail polish do not take away from the image of professionalism, then a beard should not either,” the pro-beard petition on Change.org reads.
But key decision-makers aren’t convinced.
“Is the beard relevant? Is there a need for a beard other than personal comfort to not shave?” Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Ramon Colon-Lopez, who until recently served as the senior enlisted adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a Facebook discussion last March.
“If you want to look cute with your skinny jeans and your beard, by all means, do it someplace else,” he said, according to the news outlet Stars and Stripes. “But quit wasting our time on something that doesn’t have anything to do with kicking the enemy’s ass.”
Indeed, specialists say it’s worth considering whether a change to facial hair regulations is truly the best way to pull in more recruits.
“What they’re worried about is the thin end of the wedge,” said Mr. Withey, the University of Exeter professor. “If you allow beards, do you say, ‘Well, if you smoke a few joints now and then, we don’t have a problem with that?’ If we let the standards go completely, do we lose some control?”