I left the military in 2015 after 10 years of service that included three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and about a dozen other deployments around the world. Initially, I was drawn to tactical clothing: military-style cargo pants, some variety of combat boot. I carried my multitool and other useful items, just like I did when I served. None of this was an attempt to convey authority or strength. It was a way to replicate the comfort of my uniform. As I transitioned to civilian life — and a difficult transition it was — wearing those clothes helped.
But slowly I moved away from that practice. I lost that comfort as I noticed the rise of “the Uniform.”
“The Uniform” is my term for the look some protesters have adopted in recent years. It is not a specific military uniform but often a mix of non-government-issue, third-party combat gear. There are usually lots of accessories and pouches; patches of varying political rancor; and flags that are rarely red, white and blue. Sometimes these outfits display a blood type, a practice meant to save lives in combat. Usually the clothes are clean, with no visible wear. Sometimes there are tactical masks or fabrics meant to evoke traditional Middle Eastern garb. And a rifle, often also heavily accessorized.
To my eye, the overall look is a caricature of a Special Operations warfighter, like those in video games.
The Uniform has become a fixture in political storms and crises. People in these outfits show up to political events, where they scream and scowl. They demand freedom as they wield assault rifles. They reject criticism as un-American. Some carry flags that are un-American. In a country where minorities are killed for mistaken perceptions, they protest in a protective ether of unrecognized privilege. They have adopted the Uniform to show a willingness to use force to protect their way of life. Thankfully, this interpretation of the appearance of strength is generally as far as things go.
At first, my discomfort with wearing tactical gear was rooted in not wanting to be associated with a particular political stance. I worried less that the look was being appropriated than I did about not wanting to explain my position to anyone either way. As many veterans can attest, the effort to do so can be exhausting and traumatic.
Now, however, I feel a different discomfort when I see the Uniform. Those wearing it are attempting to make their appearance speak for them, sometimes without the service that normally gives power to that voice. Over our nation’s history, the sacrifice and commitment of military service have made it a source of integrity and wisdom. It is meaningful when someone in uniform speaks because the uniform is also speaking. The power of that voice is such that political activities of military members in uniform are restricted. The fiber and brass of military uniforms announce the service of those wearing it; they suggest valuable insight and perspective.
Veterans know brothers and sisters who died in uniform. Tattered camouflage was often still wrapped around detached limbs. Millions of goodbyes have been said in uniform, and the uniform was the last thing that far too many family members touched. Millions of Americans have stood in uniform and watched innocent people suffer. Sometimes we could help; sometimes we were helpless. Some of us wore the same gear for weeks straight with no showers or laundry. We know the permanent coloring inflicted by months of billowing dust and sand. Uniforms get dirty — covered in hydraulic oil, mud, blood. Still, we wear them as we serve.
The military uniform has always shrouded pain. Veterans know this, and our uniforms speak because of it.
Military veterans, of course, are not gatekeepers of suffering. Many across our country are struggling. People are sick. Income inequality is rampant. Skin color and class trigger bias and discrimination. These conditions are not new, but the pandemic has exacerbated them.
Citizens have every right to be angry at government responses that are unclear, insufficient or unwarranted. Citizens have every right to protest — to speak from their personal pain.
They don’t need gear to speak for them.
I don’t pretend to know what suffering others have experienced. When I see the Uniform engaged in protest, I understand that it is intended to convey a message. But this appearance, reappropriated in anger, rings hollow.
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