2nd Amendment to the Constitution of The United States of America

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

"I ask sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people except for a few politicians."
- George Mason (father of the Bill of Rights and The Virginia Declaration of Rights)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The lost art of the boot shine...

I was reminded the other day about a story I heard that was about a Sergeant Major that on soldier of the year and promotion boards would routinely bring a troop to attention, get up from his chair and peer over the table at him and then dismiss the soldier without a word.  What was he doing? Looking at his shoes or boots to see how well they were shined. I guess he figured most people will take care of the parts of their uniform that they see reflected back in the mirror, but if a soldier going before a board wouldn't put more time into his appearance than a rough coat of polish on his shoes than he (or she) wasn't what he was looking for.

This type of story harks back to an Army era where OG 108 uniforms were expected to be highly starched in garrison, shining shoes and brass was a routine part of life in the military and indeed most civilians think it such an intristic part of military life the acts are constanlty lampooned in popular culture to show the military as a bunch of mindless laborers doing menial work.

I saw a couple of troops in the airport when we went on vacation a few weeks ago.  Like me when I retired in 2008 they were wearing the Army ACU uniform with the rough side out tan boots.  I did like to wear these as they did require less daily maintenance in theater, especially when stuck at Camp Arifjan where everybody thought that they were at some deployed version of the Pentagon or something and "on-the-spot" corrections were thrown around like sand in the wind (and there was a lot of that to begin with!).  The boots did not require polish to maintain, but a stiff bristle brush to remove the dirt in the nap of the leather and maybe and eraser to remove errant marks on the leather.   Matter of fact the entire ACU ensemble was designed with low care maintenance a feature with the uniform actually engineered originally to be replaced every 6 months in the field with velcro name tapes, rank and unit patches en vogue for the troops.

This initiative started almost 2 decades ago when the Army started to preach (at least in theory) the "buff and puff" mantra of appearance with the "old" BDU uniform.  This meant that soldiers were expected to keep a polished brush shine on their boots and that the BDU uniform was permanent press so once removed from the dryer it was hung on a hanger and hand smoothed as best possible.  The "new" combat boots at the time supposedly differed from the older black LPC boots (that's Leather Personnel Carrier boots to you non-Infantry types) in that it was impregnated with some chemical barrier in the leather and would not take a shine to begin, with...that was hogwash...I knew enough people that got shines on them.  Probably another basic training lore like putting saltpeter in the food to dissuade...well, you know.  Despite this, soldiers of the "old guard" and some of their subordinates that they influenced kept the tradition of ironing, starching (against regulations, although "sizing" spray was allowed) and spit shining boots alive and well...for a while.

All of this knowledge lost because we changed boots...sad...

All of this was meant to help dispel the notion to the "newer and smarter" recruits of the all volunteer Army that came about post Vietnam that they were simple laborers and that their time was better spent learning and soldiering than polishing and ironing.   Not that I have a problem with that in principle..I mean these "kids" going through basic training (now 10 weeks instead of the 8 during most of my career) are being trained to go directly to units deploying to combat zones.  I get it.  Teaching a soldier how to keep himself alive or his battle buddy does take precedence over shining some boots or making sure a gig line crease was correct on a pair of trousers.

Still, I can't help but shed a tear a bit at the loss of a bit of Army culture from my generation.  Sure, jump boots are still spit shined by Airborne personnel and worn with their dress uniform pants blouse in them, but for most of the Army this is now a mostly forgotten legacy.  Low quarter (dress) shoes have been issued as a permanently shined plastic version for a while (I used to pay for those to wear them with my dress B uniform, which was my duty uniform for a few years), brass is not also a high gloss, no touch item and lord knows what else by now.  I fondly remember Infantry OSUT training at Ft Benning sitting outside our barracks shining out boots...it was a time of peace and calm for the most part in an environment that surely did lack it.  It was, for me at least, almost a form of zen meditation where I could collect my thoughts and think a bit while deftly moving a damp cotton diaper in circles over the polish on my boots bringing them to a glossy shine.

So today we are a far different force that the one I swore into 26 years ago...mostly for the better I think but with these little rituals of military life disappearing there will be soon little to culturally differentiate the soldiers on the battlefield from the civilian contractors that are so abundant over there.  Maybe new rituals will take their place, but I doubt it. Can anyone in the "new Army" actually tell me why a soldier would iron a crease going from shoulder to shoulder across their back in their BDU blouse?  Didn't think so.....


Anonymous said...

Interesting. Seems the old soldiers with Gen. Washington really were scruffy and slovenly looking but sure kicked the Very sharp looking British soldiers posteriors.

dont look so good but can shoot

Huey said...

Point accepted, but I should point out that the soldiers that started with GEN Washington at the end of the war looked and acted very different from the Army that forced Cornwallis' surrender. During the winter of 1777-78 when the Army was in almost certain disarray a certain Prussian Officer Baron Von Steuben transformed the Army by standardizing drill and tactics ane even by....gasp...inspections and installing discipline by holding soldiers accountable to published standards.....sort of like requiring shined boots, eh?

Huey said...

Make that "started with GEN WAshington at the START of Thor war"

Anonymous said...

Warrant Officer (Candidate) Flight Training, WOFT, was half OCS and half flight school in the '60's and early '70's. Breaking starch twice a day in the old fatigues, polished brass, highly spit-shined boots marked even/odd for even/odd days, and no "static displays." All for team building, discipline and "attention to detail." Plus, it gave the TACs something to do to mess with us as we tried to manage our time. Almost 9 months of this; price to pay for the wings. regards, Alemaster

RangerPel said...

Ah yes, I remember those days. 1st Rgr Bn CSM Glenn Morrell (Later SMA) said that a soldier that would only spit shine the toe probably also wouldn't conduct proper personal hygiene. (paraphrased) Of course, the direct quote was more to the point of the soldier's proper use of toilet paper!