Haircuts in a Time of Coronavirus?

A Marine gives another service member a haircut in the barbershop aboard the USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea, March 2, 2020.

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Alan L. Robertson

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A Marine gives another service member a haircut in the barbershop aboard the USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea, March 2, 2020.

There have been too many confusing messages during this crisis. Senior military and civilian leaders should be enforcing social distancing as much as discipline, and with one voice.

In the biblical story, Samson was Israel’s most powerful military leader — a man of unmatched physical strength, called to a life of discipline in service to his nation. But he lost his strength and his sight when his wife gave him a haircut.

Haircuts are also sapping the strength of the U.S. military and impairing our vision today.

As in the story, however, haircuts are not the real problem. They are simply a symbol of deeper dysfunction. For the sake of upholding a modern cultural tradition, military leaders are sending confusing messages to the force and losing focus on more important priorities.

The scene at the Pentagon press conference on Tuesday was remarkable. Reporters questioned Defense Secretary Mark Esper about a video showing Marines in line to get haircuts at a Camp Pendleton barber shop, clearly ignoring social distancing guidelines. Although Esper initially scoffed at the question, a reporter again pressed him, emphasizing it was just one of many cases of U.S. troops caught disregarding social distancing standards.

Esper finally relented, saying that he thought military leaders should “suspend haircuts, right, for whatever period of time — that’s the type of guidance you need to make.”

But then Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley abruptly cut Esper off. “Don’t take that as guidance yet. Don’t take that as guidance,” Milley said to the reporters.

Milley’s interjection was jarring. By statute, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is not in the chain of command and has no authority to issue such guidance. The secretary of defense does.

Sure, Esper had not issued formal guidance to suspend haircuts, and perhaps Milley simply was trying to clarify that point. But the exchange also exposed a lack of unity, or at least a lack of prior coordination, between the secretary and the chairman on a known issue in the news related to the coronavirus crisis.

Although military leaders should be more vocal expressing their views in public than they have been in the recent past, they should neither surprise civilian leaders nor undermine their legitimate authority. The chairman may have unintentionally done both.

It’s not the only example of civilian-military tensions, lately. Milley’s response about haircuts comes in the wake of silence by senior military leaders over more egregious civilian decisions that have challenged military autonomy, including firing the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s Capt. Brett Crozier, cancelling a process to remove Navy SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher’s Trident pin, and other recent incidents involving President Donald Trump.

Although military leaders have some good reasons to be frustrated over these civilian interventions, there are more constructive ways to respond and rebuild public trust. Military leaders at all levels should start by improving adherence to social distancing guidelines and focusing on better military performance than we have seen in recent weeks. Sidelining an aircraft carrier with more than 550 sick sailors and one death from COVID-19 does not engender trust. Neither does a military academy suffering two suicides after implementing a policy of harsh confinement. Nor does an on-base barber shop packed with Marines blatantly ignoring the basic Centers for Disease Control guidelines by which the rest of the nation is desperately trying to survive.

If military leaders expect civilians to grant them autonomy to make decisions on more important things than haircuts, they must earn it – not demand it. In Italy and Korea, some Army leaders are demonstrating this progress is possible.

Instead, confusion about haircuts has diverted media attention from a vital message being sent by senior leaders, including Milley, of deterrence to adversaries and assurance to Allies. Unclear guidance has also caused confusion at the unit level. Changes in training, health and fitness, and maintenance programs are essential to maintaining readiness and meeting operational commitments over the next 18 months, or until a vaccine is developed.

It may seem to the public — and to many in uniform — like the military’s leaders care more about haircuts than they do about their people. I have no doubt senior military leaders are heavily invested in the health and protection of their troops. But the vocal defense of haircut standards Milley delivered — absent clear policy guidance — only a day after the Pendleton barber shop video shot around social media sent the wrong message. Especially in the wake of the Crozier firing, the messy response on haircuts guarantees that reporters will cover whatever next steps senior military leaders take on social distancing.

This media attention will provide an opportunity to do things right and begin to regain lost trust. A good start would be to send an unequivocal message to the force: every military service must enforce standards on social distancing and mask-wearing just as aggressively, if not more aggressively, than they do on haircuts and physical training.

Doing so may demand tough choices. It may even require a temporary suspension of our sacred haircut tradition. But sometimes a little humility is required to regain your strength. 

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