“Facial hair in the military has been at various time common, prohibited, or an integral part of the uniform,” reads the Wikipedia article on the history of facial hair in the military. In the majority of cases, beards are prohibited for all combat soldiers and are disallowed by most outfits of the Canadian and American armed forces. Neatly trimmed mustaches may be allowed for military and police forces, except for those in basic training, as long as they do not exceed the width of the wearers mouth. The rule for new recruits is still to shave it off. All of it.
Unlike mustaches which have been allowed within limits, beards have almost always been prohibited. For most of modern military history they have been strictly banned for safety and hygiene reasons. However, not all military institutions were as steadfastly against beards as others. The American Coastguard allowed them until 1986 when they were banned outright. Similarly, the American military briefly allowed beards during a period in the 1970’s and 80’s, but has since banned them once more.
Could the lateness of the Coastguard’s prohibition reflect some sort of inherent laxity within that particular arm of the law? What was happening in the 70’s and 80’s that made the usually tradition-bound military to change its rules? Rules are a big part of working in the military, and so when they change or are inconsistent it tells you something about the attitudes of a time and place.
Today, American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan have been allowed to grow beards in order to better blend in with the local population. While in Canada, Sikh members of the military and police forces are allowed to grow beards in respect of their religion. The latter instance was particularly controversial and stirred up arguments about tradition, custom, religious accommodation, and diversity. The fact is that facial hair often represents something much larger and more complicated than what it actually is – hair on someone’s face. The way we think, feel, and make rules about it tells us about ourselves and our society.
Sometimes a mustache is just a mustache, but in a cultural context, sometimes it’s not.