Perhaps some of you have seen the following video clip. It comes from the critically acclaimed documentary “Restrepo,” which famously depicts the combat operations that a U.S. Army infantry platoon engaged in while deployed to Afghanistan’s infamous Korengal Valley in 2007. It is by Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington, war correspondents who spent months embedded with the unit during its deployment. A disclaimer: The video includes some vulgarity, along with scenes of U.S. troops firing their weapons from their small mountainside outpost in Afghanistan: Watch the documentary, and you’ll notice right away the chaotic nature of combat. You’ll also notice that troops in far-flung regions of a war zone don’t always wear their uniforms in their entirety. That’s especially so for troops who are resting in between operations in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. That may drive some generals who see videos and photographs crazy after the fact, but it’s reality. “Restrepo” is relevant as descriptions continue to trickle out about the platoon of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who was exchanged by the Obama administration for five Taliban officials on May 31. One of the latest was published by the New York Times on Sunday. It noted that the platoon had a “misfit” reputation, and was “known to wear bandanas and cutoff T-shirts.” To be certain, some issues that have been raised about Bergdahl’s platoon may — may, I stress — have played a role in setting the conditions for Bergdahl’s disappearance from his base. For example, the platoon’s first commander and top enlisted leader were both replaced early in the deployment because of problems, the Times reported. In zeroing in on the ragtag nature of combat troops, however, the narrative about Bergdahl’s platoon is missing important context. Infantrymen in both the Army and Marine Corps call themselves “grunts” to underscore the dirty, unpleasant nature of their work, and frequently discard the formal aspects of military life while in a combat zone. Keeping a haircut, clean shave and military uniform that are within regulations can be difficult while deployed on a small patrol base, and not doing so is in fact a point of pride for some enlisted troops. Bergdahl’s unit would hardly be outside the norm in wearing bandanas and cut-off T-shirts or walking around on their base bare-chested. That isn’t to say the brass is all okay with it. Rank-and-file troops on small outposts in war zones frequently prepare when they know a general or high-ranking enlisted leader like a sergeant major is coming to visit them. Not doing so can result in a butt-chewing, not unlike the one this Marine got in HBO’s 2008 mini-series “Generation Kill” for having a poorly groomed mustache. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nEFLKpknM4 The Marine Corps’ leaders, in particular, have been on a mission to enforce grooming and uniform standards as the war in Afghanistan draws to a close. In an interview with me for the Marine Corps Times last fall, several generals noted their belief that doing so was important to cementing a culture of discipline. “One of the pieces was seeking and achieving tactical brilliance by enforcing the standards,” said Lt. Gen. John Wissler, commander of III Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa, Japan, of the plan the generals were discussing at the time. “By enforcing all standards. All standards, for this very reason: The units that have standards and enforce standards where they live translates to where they work, translates to where they fight.” Across the services, that isn’t always met with approval from rank-and-file troops. After raising the bandana-and-sleeves issue with Bergdahl’s unit yesterday on Twitter, I got this response:
Not sure I understand why Bowe Bergdahl’s unit is under scrutiny now for wearing bandannas and cutoff shirts. (1/2) — Dan Lamothe (@DanLamothe) June 8, 2014
It’s a cultural disconnect between the military’s senior leaders and its foot soldiers that has occurred for years. It just seldom gets mentioned until a story of Bergdahl’s magnitude comes up.