You've seen those photos from the Civil War era of generals loaded with facial hair. We're talking mustaches that make the one legendary fighter pilot Robin Olds wore look puny and beards that were awesome AF.
Confederate General James Longstreet
For many decades, though, the beards have been verboten. This is because of World War I – or more specifically, the use of chemical weapons during World War I. The gas mask became a crucial piece of kit, and if you had a beard, the gas mask wouldn't seal properly. This is not a good thing when the enemy uses anything from mustard to VX. In fact, to quote Egon Spengler, "It would be bad."
According to the Army Times, though, that could be changing. One of the reasons is to accommodate some religions, notably Sikhs, who are forbidden to cut their hair. But another reason is the popularity achieved by special operations troops who have put the hurt on terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Army Special Forces on patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Photo: U.S. Army)
And it's not only "operator chic" that drives some to adopt the whiskered look. These days it seems if you're a man under 35 and you don't have tats and some facial shag, you just ain't cool.
"Authorizing the wear of beards in the Army, in addition to approved religious accommodations policy, is a topic that soldiers have inquired about recently across the force," Sgt. Major of the Army Dan Dailey said in a statement to the Army Times. "As of now, there are no plans to change the policy. Army leaders and researchers are currently reviewing the wear of beards by soldiers in the Army. Any potential change in policy will be made with careful consideration to the professionalism, standards, discipline, readiness and safety of all of our soldiers."
The big hurdle, though, remains the fit of gas masks. The Army tested not only the current respirator, the M50 Joint Service General Purpose Mask, but also the Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology and the gear worn by the chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives specialists in the Army.
U.S. Army Soldiers put their gas masks on for a simulated chemical attack during a training mission near Camp Ramadi, Iraq, Sept. 25, 2007. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Andrew D. Pendracki)
"The baseline folks passed," Lamar Garrett, of the Army Research Laboratory said. "Everyone else degraded in some form or another."
"If we really wanted to do some serious analysis, we could look at what was the degradation of an individual with a beard that's an inch-and-a-half, two inches, etc.," Garrett added.
The Army Times note that the special operations troops have a specialized gas mask that does seal with beards, but the cost is very high – and the budget doesn't have room for that to be sent to all soldiers.
At this time, the Soldier Research Development & Engineering Center is doing more research into not only beards, but other forms of religious headgear and large amounts of hair. This first round of testing will go through June.