Friday, January 22, 2010

SecDef- Pentagon needs a fashion makeover

The New York Times reported on Monday that Secretary Gates reverted the Pentagon’s dress code to Service Dress, at least for his staff. After 9-11 Secretary Rumsfeld mandated that day-to-day uniform for all US service personnel should be fatigues and combat boots. This especially included those serving at the Pentagon. The idea was a reminder that the Pentagon itself was a terrorist target, that the nation was at war and that even the most senior servicemen should be battle ready (at least out of solidarity with their subordinates stationed in combat zones). Call it symbolic, psychological or political even—regardless there was little controversy when the change to fatigues was made. Then again, in the days following 9-11 little policy change was questioned and the dress code certainly would not have made the top-ten questionable administration decisions.

Monday’s announcement was very low key and only applied to the Secretary’s immediate professional staff. The intention is to reinforce the professional atmosphere of the Pentagon as it is the official headquarters of national defense. This should be intuitive as most of those employed in the Pentagon are career soldiers—professionals. And yet, the complaint is that Mr. Gates has overstepped his “civilian role” by impeding on officer prerogative. Never mind that this is unofficial policy that only the Secretary’s staff is obliged to follow, but the initial fatigue-only policy was also a civilian decision.

In what reality is the dress code of non-combat personnel stationed at home anything but a matter of Political/grand strategy? Aside from the amount of time needed to arrange every medal and shine one’s shoes to regulation, a pencil pusher’s attire has no strategic, operational or tactical implications to make meddling in it a politician’s overstep. Had the Pentagon been battle ready, decked out in fatigues and combat boots on September 11, 2001 AA flight 77 still would have impacted killing 125 inside this national fortress. Desert camouflage does not exactly make chameleons of the 26,000 employees against the 6.5 million sq ft of fluorescent lit concrete and limestone. Shinned brass makes no more a target of the Pentagon and its employees than its symbolic and practical value.

Whether a change in professional military dress code is big or little “p” politics, no one is more vested in the implications than the Secretary of Defense. The perceptions of our nation’s military personnel at home and abroad as well as morale are his imperatives as SecDef. If Mr. Gates decides that the presentation of the U.S. armed forces needs to be less cowboy and more business man, he would know.

Will this evolve into widespread policy change for the Uniformed Services? It might not be necessary. Apparently peer pressure around the Pentagon is enough to make officers concerned as to whether their staff should follow suit…

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