Army Cracks Down on Tattoos

My latest for Defense One, "The Army's Misguided Crackdown on Tattoos," has posted.


My latest for Defense One, “The Army’s Misguided Crackdown on Tattoos,” has posted.

Despite being in its thirteenth year of combat in Afghanistan and facing threats to its budget on the home front, the United States Army is focusing its energy on a more longstanding menace: soldiers whose appearance drives sergeants major crazy.

The vagaries of recruiting during wartime forced Uncle Sam to turn a blind eye to volunteers with tattoos covering their entire arms and neck. Male soldiers sporting Elvis-like sideburns and black soldiers with blonde eyebrows made senior NCOs shake their heads but were nonetheless allowed to go downrange to fight the Taliban. And let’s not even talk about what some of these individuals looked like off duty at the PX or back home on leave.

With the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan rapidly winding down, though, Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler is finally doing something about all that. A revised Army Regulation 670-1, the bible for uniform and grooming standards, is one signature away from going into effect. For the first time, violations will reportedly be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.


While I share Chandler’s visceral reaction to extreme tattoos and unusual hair coloring, these new regulations are wrongheaded. There’s simply zero evidence that people sporting them make subpar soldiers or diminish their unit’s esprit de corps. (Obviously, gang symbols and racially offensive ink is a different story; but they’re already banned.)

Beyond that, it’s rather ludicrous to set an arbitrary peacetime standard for the appearance of soldiers, a profession that exists solely to fight America’s wars, that will go by the wayside when the shooting starts again. The Army should focus its dwindling resources on winning those future wars, not looking good in garrison.

More at the link.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Published Elsewhere, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    Okay, but if there are no standards on acceptable appearance in uniform (peacetime or wartime), then what kind of army do you have? The Dutch Army? 🙂

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    James, no link.

  3. John Peabody says:

    Yeah, I used to wonder why bother with peacetime standards if they were dropped in wartime (I saw some of this in 1991). Then I realized that if you shave off the violators every year (losing, say, 2 out of 100), then when war suddenly kicks your butt, you have only this year’s violators hanging around….so 98% are compliant. On the other hand, if you didn’t kick out the overweight, the drug offenders, those who can’t advance to E-5, etc., your wartime military might have 10% or more.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    While I share Chandler’s visceral reaction to extreme tattoos and unusual hair coloring, these new regulations are wrongheaded.

    Same here, but then, I’m just old. “Hey You! Get Off My Lawn!!”

  5. rudderpedals says:

    Won’t those piercings get caught on something?

    Second the link needed to our host’s article.

  6. Scott says:

    @DC Loser: My memory may be old but I seem to remember the Dutch always doing well in NATO exercises despite the long hair, unions, and pot smoking.

  7. Scott says:

    It may be counterintuitive but I think discipline in peacetime is more important than in wartime. When the stakes are lower, the focus is naturally on less important things and external controls (discipline) are required. In wartime, the stakes are higher and soldiers are more internally motivated and self-disciplined.

  8. rudderpedals says:
  9. Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler

    It was a dark night at C-company. The kind of night that makes a man want to crawl into bed with a bottle of whiskey and not come out until spring. And then she walked into my office. “What can do for you Major?” I asked. “I need a job done. I’ll pay well for a man who can follow orders without asking too many question.” “That sounds right up my alley. What’s the job.”

    Her eyes flicked to the tent flap for a momment before whispering, she whispered “Tatoos….”

    A smarter man would have resigned his comission right there. But I never was a smart man when it came to Majors.

  10. Scott says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Awesome. Made my day.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @rudderpedals: Thanx. I think James must be in a class of his own.

    (pun intended)

  12. Todd says:

    3 words: Force Shaping Tool

    When tasked with rapidly drawing down personnel numbers, things like subpar fitness scores and dress & appearance violations are easy discriminators.

    You can say it’s not really “fair” … but life isn’t supposed to be fair.

    And specifically on the issue of tatoos, people who get visible tatoos are expressing their individualism …. not a trait that’s necessarily condusive to a well disciplined military organization.

  13. William Wilgus says:

    Why do you think they call it “uniform”?

    These tattoos are not a fashion statement, they’re a mental health statement.

  14. al-Ameda says:

    I care more about the policy or decision that sends tattoo-clad soldiers to places like Iraq or Afghanistan than I do about the tattoos.

  15. 11B40 says:


    But otherwise that all-volunteer military is working out fine, right ???

  16. JKB says:

    @William Wilgus:

    It’s actually “uniformed” not “uniform” services. And the particular uniformed services in discussion are the Armed services.

    Unfortunately, the line has to be drawn somewhere simply to make membership special. As the song says, you have to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.

  17. merl says:

    @DC Loser: I remember long haired Dutch soldiers from my time in Germany.

  18. Matt Bernius says:

    Thanks for finding the link. I’m adding it to the article…

  19. superdestroyer says:


    During actual war, the hair cuts usually get shorter. Having long hair under a helmet when showers are few and far between have a tendency to encourage short hair. In addition, getting a hair cut while in a base camp is hard. Many service members learn to survive with a buzz cut because it is simple and other solider can give you the haircut.

  20. Jim M says:

    I am not in favor of letting the troops do whatever they do with the ink. Consider when they get out and apply for that civilian job, the recruiter will discriminate against the ink for most professional jobs. Corporate America does not want tattoos on peoples faces or hands and full arms etc.. They might get a job working somewhere out of site of customers but not our front.. That skull and other assorted things look good with their buddies but not so when they get out..

  21. maggie says:

    Lordy, let’s worry about the elephants invading NYC joke comes to mind. Tattoos are just personal “art”, unless of course people are tattooed forcibly to identify them as sub human like they did in the Jewish “detention” camps in WWII. I am not crazy about them, when done to extreme, but hey, they really do help in identifying bodies in war time and other deaths where bodies are often otherwise unidentifiable or people on the run from the law, so why don’t we complain about the monetary cost of playing this silly tattoos are ok, tattoos are not okay in the military on something a little more important????
    Old men want young men to die in their declared wars ? You cover the kids with cammo anyway, why be particular that you only send the unadorned to get killed???