“Saigon … shit. I’m still only in Saigon,” says a scruffy, broken Capt. Benjamin Willard, peering out through slatted window blinds while on the violent bender that opens Apocalypse Now. “Every time I think I’m going to wake up back in the jungle.” But when we see the Special Forces assassin travel deep into that jungle, he is clean-shaven. Even on a river boat, headed for the heart of the American military’s darkness, he takes the time to shave smartly and neatly. John Rambo, too, keeps his own facial hair to a minimum on his bloody forays into redemption and revenge. When confronted with the prospect of a “dry shave” by sadistic policemen in First Blood, he beats them up and escapes into the hills—where he continues to shave himself, presumably with a gigantic bowie knife.
You could consume more than half a century of American popular culture, from World War II to Korea to Vietnam to September 11, without encountering many bearded manly heroes; facial hair was generally reserved for wild enemies foreign and domestic, swarthy terrorists and libertine hippies. Even American westerns posited a surprising number of neatly trimmed frontier protagonists, reserving scruff for their foes. Italian-produced spaghetti westerns, which introduced Clint Eastwood’s perpetually unshaven man with no name, seem the exception that proves the rule, deploying beards as to emphasize that their protagonists are deeply flawed antiheroes, operating outside mainstream norms.
In the twenty-first century, however, America’s man of the hour is a follicle farm. Hipsters affect the lumberjack’s hirsute machismo. Genteel movie stars like George Clooney and Paul Rudd tantalize paparazzi with full, bushy beards. Police departments in Michigan and Texas have relaxed their officers’ notoriously strict grooming standards to permit beards and goatees. Faux-folksy politicians like Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former House speaker Paul Ryan attempt to transform their brands with a macho hairy mug—just as John Kerry and Al Gore did a few years earlier, with limited success. Our Hollywood war heroes, armed men who go bump in the night, grow facial hair so voluminous that perhaps their beards are what do the heavy bumping. Even that most American of fictional G.I.s, the idealistic Steve Rogers, returns from a depressive self-exile in Avengers: Infinity War with a sexy beard that says “Captain America has seen some shit.”
The Guardian in 2013 hypothesized that human society had reached “peak beard”; though it may have appeared so, the ensuing six years have not dampened enthusiasm for facial hair. The razor industry nervously recorded a 5 percent decline in sales last year as men’s shaving frequency has continued to decline; producers of shaving accouterments have tried to cut prices and diversify into new grooming products, having apparently accepted that our beards are here to stay.
But why is ours such a hairy century? What began this trend, and what fuels it? There is an easy answer, though it leads to harder questions: We can thank the Global War on Terror—or the Long War, the Bellum Americanum, whatever you choose to call it—and the reluctance of military leaders to impose discipline on the most professional of the units that participated in GWOT, special operations forces. Generals preferred to allow those units to operate based on “big boy rules”—a devolution of authority empowering them to operate like Apocalypse Now’s mad Col. Kurtz, “without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct.” The evidence of this is the proliferation of beards in the military, which now extends to civilian society. We worship the post-9/11 military operator. We are a nation drunk on “tacticool” culture.
George Bush warned us. “This war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago,” he told Americans on September 21, 2001, in launching an anti-terror campaign that itself is now old enough to enlist. Proof of the president’s assertion came almost immediately, when the first photos emerged of U.S. service members in Afghanistan, joining the native Northern Alliance to wrangle up Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. To call these irregular troops was a gross understatement: They were elite special operations soldiers riding horses instead of tanks, wearing modified uniforms with beards and locally procured pakol hats.
This was a part of the blending-in that was deemed essential to building trust with natives of Afghanistan. “For Afghan men, beards are a sign of manhood,” Stars and Stripes reported in 2010. “And that is why special operations forces tend to look like Grizzly Adams—to earn the trust of locals.” There was an irony here: In his post-9/11 speech, Bush had enumerated the crimes of Afghanistan’s theocratic rulers; among these was the fact that a “man can be jailed in Afghanistan if his beard is not long enough.”
Exotic overseas cultures were not the only ones who had long maintained that beards were macho. Even the wild-haired Charles Darwin speculated that primeval females preferred bearded mates on the assumption that they were more virile. “As far as the extreme intricacy of the subject permits us to judge,” he wrote in The Descent of Man, “it appears that our male ape-like progenitors acquired their beards as an ornament to charm or excite the opposite sex, and transmitted them only to their male offspring.” This was part of Darwin’s larger attempt to explain, through evolution, “the greater size, strength, courage, pugnacity, and energy of man, in comparison with woman.” (As Slate’s Amanda Hess puts it, “The history of beards could also be seen as a history of men making irrational arguments to prove their superior faculties of reason.”)
The war on terror widened, and more tactical operators—Green Berets, Seals, Rangers—got explicit or tacit approval from military higher-ups for their beards while on missions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, once-unheard-of exceptions to the services’ longstanding grooming regulations, which had posited that facial hair might run counter to good order and discipline.
It’s difficult to overstate the cultural revolution this spurred within the service. Wearing a beard soon meant that whatever one was doing must be of sufficient importance to buck the rule by which every other soldier had been governed since basic training. Having to shave meant that one must not be all that consequential. With support from military leadership, these “tip of the spear” elites, who fought and risked death out of proportion to their rank-and-file peers, carried a new physical totem of their status. The operator beard became aspirational.
Previously clean-shaven veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who left the ranks in the late aughts began embracing the “post-service beard.” (Disclosure: The authors of this article both indulged in this habit—one after two hazardous infantry deployments to Afghanistan, the other after an inconsequential tour contracting in Iraq.) Active-duty troops, too, began to push for looser restrictions on facial hair. Over the past year, the Pentagon has determined that Sikhs and earnest pagan worshipers of Norse gods may wear beards in the ranks, but “Pastafarian” followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster may not. (Some of the same conservative circles that deify America’s bearded operators grouse that the military’s recent consideration of facial hair for religious enlistees is “Muslim appeasement.”)
Popular culture capitalized on this trend. Fresh-faced stars like Bradley Cooper and Mark Wahlberg gained plaudits for their turns as unapologetic, steely eyed Navy Seal survivors. The men they portrayed—the ones that weren’t dead—got book deals, film royalties, and regular celebrations on Fox News and at NRA conventions. Consumer culture capitalized, too: If a $3,000 AR-15 with fancy optics and rail-mounted tactical accessories is too rich for your blood, you can capture a little of that operator mojo with Gladiator beard oil from Amazon. (Enter VETLOVE15 for the military discount.)
There was a fundamental disconnect here, though: The Bellum Americanum was not going well. Iraq deteriorated into civil war, and U.S. attention there took away from the “pacification” of Afghanistan. As American strategy floundered, the operators served a useful cultural purpose: highlighting tactical victories and individual courage, made doubly and tragically heroic by politicians’ and strategists’ blunders. The beard became a marker of hard men who did their part to win the war, even if it was unwinnable. If only our politicos and tastemakers were made of such resilient stuff! While the Cold War’s clean-shaven American military hero stood in contrast to his unkempt, unchurched foes, the Long War’s bearded operator now stood in contrast to his own unchurched fellow Americans.
There was another problem: What separated many of these operators from their less-virile counterparts on the American homefront was their capacity for horrifying brutality. As the cultural zeal for beards caught on back home, Afghan tribal leaders were advising locals to avoid bearded troops and deal with the clean-shaven ones, who were empirically less likely to mistreat them. The bearded operators, they said, were the raucous, profane ones who raided your home, searched your women without dignity, and snatched people away to indefinite detentions in arbitrary arrests. Even this could become a point of pride for the operators, who thrived on instilling fear, like the early Seals in Vietnam who reveled in their hoary local reputations as supernatural “men with green faces” who came to take enemies in the night. But in counterinsurgency—that already-paradoxical quest to win hearts and minds at the ends of rifle muzzles—such draconian tactics moot the strategy.
Nor were their troubling excesses confined to distant battlefields. Chris Kyle, the soldier portrayed by Cooper in American Sniper, bragged (probably falsely) about killing hundreds of men, and not just in Iraq: He claimed to have shot two carjackers dead in Texas, as well as 30 looters from a perch on New Orleans’ Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And he still got a movie—one directed, no less, by Clint Eastwood, the stubbly ’70s spaghetti-western antihero experiencing a second life as a conservative icon.
By then, the operator could do no wrong at home, and his gauntlet was taken up by pastors, hunters, good ol’ boys, and stars of reality shows like Duck Dynasty, whose beards mixed easily with their demagogic condemnations of American cultural decadence, even as they hawked their branded outdoor gear. The reactionary circle of tacticool was complete. “I see many [police] officers in Chicago and surrounding suburbs sporting more facial hair,” a retired Chicago police lieutenant wrote with misgivings last year in Law Enforcement Today. “At first, it was only officers in specialized units. Then [tactical] units began sporting goatees. Now I see more lumberjacks in uniform.” (Chicago Police Department regulations now authorize bureau chiefs to allow their officers to wear beards, as well as military-style “battle dress uniforms.”)
The graphic artist Nate Powell, who studies how aesthetic styles normalize “the language of force,” connects the tactical beard to the rise of Punisher imagery among conservative cops and their backers: “Back in the States, these aesthetic choices have trickled downstream through law enforcement and private security (often as post-active duty careers) into civilian life—doubling as an outward badge of honor for a historically unpopular war, a shield against shame and trauma.” The aura of the beard, and perhaps of the Gadsden flag, the Black Rifle Coffee “Conservative Cartel Collection” mug, and the “Blue Lives Matter” bumper sticker, now wards off the possibility of guilt.
It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that there’s a growing trend in conservative political leadership of embracing the beard, driven more by militarist kitsch than by the habits of Brooklyn hipsters. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, an Army war veteran, and Texas Representative Dan Crenshaw, a former Seal, now sport post-service beards for their television hits about the threats posed by Iran and immigrants. For them, at least, a military connection is clear and immediate. It’s not clear that the scruff-growing Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz intend to make a pro-military statement with their beards, but their styles have been well-received by conservative supporters—better than those conservatives might receive any number of bearded veterans agitating for peace and progress.
This is a sea change for the American right. The idea of, say, George H. W. Bush or Ronald Reagan sporting beards is absurd; in their day, few Republican veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam viewed beards on the political class as anything more than tasteless hippie individualism. But post-9/11 conservatism helped reinvent the heroic American G.I. as a bearded elite spartan, and now arrays itself around this new object of worship: merciless, unapologetic, and unquestionable.
“You have no right to judge me,” Apocalypse Now’s murderous Kurtz tells Willard before his coup de grace. “It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror... Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror.” Today, the face of horror bears whiskers. Many well-intending faces do as well, for reasons that have nothing to do with militarism. Sometimes a beard is just a beard. But the wholesale injection of facial hair into the American mainstream by veterans, law enforcement, and conservatives also fuels a familiar joyful cultural urge toward dominion and power. To reckon with that dogma, we must also wrestle with its cultural symbols, and trim them of their power.