Wednesday, March 31, 2004
- by Michael A. Locke
"The only way we're gonna get through this in one piece is with a sense of discipline, a sense of purpose, and wherever possible, a sensible haircut." - Arnold Rimmer
War is hair. Such was the view of amateur war historian Arnold Rimmer, whose brief comments on the subject were first aired on the BBC-TV program Red Dwarf in 1993.
Mr. Rimmer, now deceased, was speaking in the context of a response to an unprovoked rocket attack on a mining company vehicle, but his views about the history of hairstyles in armed conflict are relevant to the current war on terror.
"Perhaps you'd like to explain to me why it is that every major battle in history has been won by the side with the shortest haircuts," Mr. Rimmer asked.
"Think about it - why did the US Cavalry beat the Indian Nation? Short back and sides versus girly hippie locks."
There were exceptions in the Indian wars, but they tended to prove the rule. General Custer broke with US military custom with his long flowing mane, which was eventually separated from his head by the Indians at Little Big Horn.
During the English Civil War, which lasted from 1642 to 1649, Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads defeated the Cavaliers of the king. The Cavaliers had long hair, fought on horseback and wore fancy clothes. The Roundheads had very short hair (thus the nickname) and wore plain and simple clothes.
Going back farther in time, the introduction of shaving by the Greeks coincided with the military conquests of Alexander the Great.
Barbers from the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia in southern Italy introduced the practice of shaving to the Romans in the third century BC. Until then the Romans were mostly ungroomed.
The short haired, clean shaven Romans then ran roughshod over the unkempt masses of Europe and Asia. The practice of shaving the head clean arose during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.
When Roman hairstyles became lax the empire began to deteriorate. Longer hair became fashionable again under the emperor Hadrian, who grew a beard to hide his disfigured face and wore a wig of curly hair to conceal his baldness.
Roman hairstyles reached their most flamboyant stage under the Flavian emperors Titus, Vespasian and Domitian. By then the writing was on the wall and the decay of the military was ensured.
In 1571 the spread of Islam into Europe was arrested by the crushing defeat of the Ottomans at the battle of Lepanto. The fleet of the Holy League led by the short-haired John of Austria destroyed the Ottoman navy and freed 10,000 Christian galley slaves.
Ottoman commander Uluc Ali Pasha escaped with 40 galleys, although some accounts say his flagship was boarded by the Spaniards, who beheaded the turbaned leader, relieving him of his head, and his hair.
Hair length has played a seminal role in European military history. The Netherlands never solidified its brief rise as a merchant power because nobody was intimidated by the army's Dutch Boy haircuts.
Then there are the French, who haven't won a war, or even a major battle, since the Napoleonic era. Napoleon brought military glory to France but squandered it with typical French hubris.
At first the dapper army of Napoleon scored victory after victory over the shaggy militias of Europe's scattered provinces. Eventually the Franco penchant for preening prevailed over the disciplined military sense of Napoleon. The fancy curls and flowing plumes of the French officers were a needless distraction amid the mud and snow of the Russia invasion.
In the modern era democracies have generally proved superior in conflicts where neither side had a haircut advantage. The resolve and virtue of the Allies in World War II ultimately prevailed over the weirdness and depravity of the Nazis and Japanese.
The notable exception was southeast Asia, where the fussy French gave up and went home early. The Americans fared better, but fell short of victory. Mr. Rimmer attributed the stalemate to haircut parity. "Vietnam? Crew cuts both sides, no score, draw," he said.
The short hair theory has held true during the recent Western retaliations against Islamic extremists. In Afghanistan the U.S. armed forces easily crushed the Taliban, who were hampered by their thick hair and long beards. The unshaven Iraqis also fell back quickly before the well groomed British and American armies.
Yet amid these Middle Eastern conflicts are signs that the long era of the haircut rule is coming to an end. Short haircuts are easily adopted by individual terrorists, who can blend in with the local population.
The leading suspects in the Madrid bombing are thought to be followers of a doctrine known as Takfir wal Hijra, which advocates a sneaking, Trojan horse form of jihad. Takfiris adopt the dress and hairstyles of their host communities, making their presence hard to detect.
With armed conflict shifting from the battlefield to the back street, hairstyles may be less of a deciding factor in the War Against Terror.
But probably not. Having an enemy with a butch nap doesn't negate the psychological boost of having your own sensible coif.
As Arnold Rimmer once said, "Shiny clean boots and a spanking short haircut and you can cope with anything."
(Originally published on the eve of April Fool's Day, 2004)
(Email Michael Locke at email@example.com)