“There is something about a man in uniform,” the old adage goes.  Few have been as affected by their time in uniform as Paul Fussell, who served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1947, during which period (he tells us in his memoir) he was “ill-treated by members of the German Wehrmacht.”  The titles of some of his books—Doing Battle, Wartime, Thank God for the Atom Bomb—indicate that the author’s experience in World War II greatly affected his worldview; and so Uniforms represents a natural progression from Fussell’s generalized interest in war and the military.

Fussell, indeed, devotes most of his attention to different military styles.  Uniforms serve a variety of functions in the Armed Services.  Most importantly, they clarify, in combat, who is friend or foe.  They also serve to suppress individuality and generate esprit de corps.  Fussell examines these uses from many different angles and from the perspectives of different countries, mostly with examples drawn from the 1940’s.

Nazi Germany was, naturally, uniform crazy.  The Nazis wanted everyone to dress alike so that everyone would think alike.  

A key impulse in the social operations of the Third Reich was to urge uniformity, regarded as the ideal cultural condition.  As Joseph Goebbels once said, the object of the cultural departments of the Reich—literary, musical, cinematic—was “to unite all creative persons in a cultural uniformity of the mind.”

As Fussell describes it, almost every-one from Adolf Hitler down to the Bund Deutsche Mädel (a compulsory girls’ organization) was uniformed: Even coal miners emerged from underground with a martial look.  “An apprentice miner wore a black high-collared tunic with rows of silver buttons on sleeves and chest, twenty-four buttons in all, and, on top, a quasi-military visor cap.”

The uniforms of the German miners were more ostentatious, even, than those of Gen. George Patton, who earns Fussell’s contempt.  Patton (whom Fussell on one occasion refers to as “Georgie”) took advantage of regulations allowing generals to design their own uniforms by attaching flashy gilt buttons to his Eisenhower jacket (a waist-length coat) and wore a “preposterous lacquered helmet liner, apparently betokening, in his view, his readiness to kill at all times and places.”  There was, however, a method to this sartorial madness in the mind of the general, who once wrote that “officers must assert themselves by example and by voice.  They must be pre-eminent in courage, deportment and dress.”  He also told his diary in 1943 that “I have to exude confidence I don’t feel every minute.”  Hence his gaudy uniform, set off by the cowboyish pearl-handled six-shooter on his hip.

General Eisenhower did not go around sporting shiny buttons or wearing a helmet, looking as if he were about to go into combat at any moment.  Fussell praises Ike’s humility, contrasting it with Pat-ton’s “boyish vainglory.”  “Because he was seldom physically in command of troops, [Eisenhower] refused to enjoy the easy claim to courage implied by such devices as Patton’s helmet liner and visible pistol.”  His humility influenced his counterpart in the Pacific, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who, according to Fussell, had previously been a “peacock.”

The most peacockesque branch of the U.S. military is, of course, the Marine Corps.  Fussell rhapsodically praises the full-dress Marine uniform and asks, 

how can army green compete with marine light and dark blue, red stripes down trouser legs, shiny white visor caps, dress capes lined in red silk, with white gloves, white belts, goldish buttons on dress jacket cuffs, and, for ceremonial purposes, sabers even for sergeants?

The Marine Corps look maintains remarkable fealty to tradition, the “blood stripe” (reserved for the rank of corporal and above) representing the extreme casualties suffered by officers and NCOs at the battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican War.  (Fussell does mention some Marine Corps regulations that are not so traditional, such as the one specifying that, “if worn, wigs will comply with grooming regulations” and another stating that “maternity uniforms will be worn by pregnant Marines when the local commander determines that the standard uniforms can no longer be worn.”)

Soldiers are not the only people who wear military uniforms, and so Fussell considers the case of pretend warriors, or “reenactors.”  He suggests, however, the term “weirdos” for grown men who, having 

never tasted the thrill of being machine-gunned and mortared and thus escaped . . . lifelong bodily and spiritual damage . . . get excited by faking it . . . and indulging fantasies of heroism, largely on weekends.

Fussell concedes that Civil War reenactors are “less openly psychiatric” than the World War II variety.  The participants in the War Between the States are long dead, and the grisly suffering and death experienced at places such as Shiloh and Gettysburg are more abstract than the trauma and destruction resulting from the battles at the Ardennes and Okinawa, many of whose participants are not only alive but still writing books.

Fussell delves into dozens of other sartorial venues.  He tells us why brides wear white (Queen Victoria started it), discusses the austere uniforms of the Amish, and examines the phenomenon of the United Parcel Service delivery man as a sex symbol, for which he has discovered an expert to offer an explanation:

Dr. Jeffrey Sonnefeld, a professor of career studies at Emory University, observed that the UPS uniforms “are flattering.  They fit nicely around the thigh and they aren’t silly or trendy like those harsh blue pleats on the FedEx guys.”

Finally, the notion that one should tread lightly in “meddling with the classics” occurs repeatedly here, as in Fussell’s cautionary tale regarding Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, chief of naval operations in the early 1970’s.  Zumwalt, concerned about falling enlistments, decided that eliminating the traditional sailor’s uniform depicted on the Cracker Jack box and replacing it with one that makes sailors look “more up-to-date and more like ordinary people” would help.

Imagine that.  Admiral Zumwalt thought he could improve on the Cracker Jack box.


[Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear, by Paul Fussell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.) 204 pp., $22.00]