WITHIN 10 DAYS of taking over as commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. Paul Yost had made one thing perfectly clear: there were to be no more beards in his branch of the service. "All Coast Guard men will be clean-shaven, with the exception of neatly trimmed and military-appearing mustaches," said the order issued last week by the new commandant.

We don't mean to question the admiral's priorities. He's been in the Coast Guard 35 years, and obviously has some pretty strong views on how its men should look. Nor do we mean to cast doubt on his reasons for getting the Coast Guard in step with the other services, all of which have by now banned beards. He says he acted "after lengthy counsel with both senior officers and senior enlisted men from all over the Coast Guard." We suppose, too, that the admiral knows what he's talking about when he says the bearded military man "no longer is viewed by the people we serve as smart and proper," although we suspect that to a boater in distress, a bearded Coast Guard man is every bit as welcome a sight as a clean-shaven one.

Still, it's hard not to sympathize with the boatswain mate 3rd class who told a reporter after the order was issued that beards are "kind of a tradition in the Coast Guard, like with any seafaring people." Moreover, we wonder how many people who go into the military are greatly motivated by the desire to appear "smart and proper," as Adm. Yost puts it. Dashing, maybe, or heroic -- perhaps even fearsome. But "smart and proper"? Or, to quote the admiral further, "neat and professional"?

Your average serviceman is likely more motivated by occasionally daydreaming himself into the lead of a movie with a title like "Coast Guard Hell Patrol" or "Fenwick of the Marines," featuring desperate action, decks running red with blood or white with illicit cocaine, and the hero boarding a hostile craft with pistol in hand and a knife clenched between his teeth -- and to make that convincing it usually looks better if he's wearing a beard. If he wanted to be neat and professional he'd have gone to business school.