Becoming part of a group, a tribe or an organization often entails some kind of introduction ritual. This might simply involve having some drinks with new coworkers or enduring a few “newbie” pranks. The closer the bond needed between members of a group, the more involved or painful the ritual initiation might be. Fraternities, sororities and secret societies may opt for humiliation or something that actually causes a significant amount of physical harm.
The U.S. Army is such an organization. Soldiers often have each other’s lives in their hands, which means rock solid bonds can be a matter of real life and death. Ink and tattoos have been an important part of military culture for some time. A tattoo can often be a boding rite of passage for smaller groups within the larger military structure. While a standard uniform says, “We’re all the same,” a tattoo is statement of a soldier’s particular niche. With the tightening of rules governing military appearance and tattoos, this culture might be changing.
Staff Sgt. Adam C. Thorogood of the Kentucky National Guard is suing the military for $100 million. He believes the new rules are unconstitutional, discriminate against his body art and will hurt his chances for advancement. Various branches of the military have different relegations about the size, percentage of skin coverage and the location of tattoos. Even so, the strict new Army rules prevent soldiers with tattoos extending below the knee or elbow from becoming a warrant officer or a commissioned officer.
While appearance is an important aspect of military life, so too is the hardcore bonding that exists among different units and specialties. Tattoos are often a serious part of this bonding.
With American wars simmering down for the time being, a leaner Army might feel it can be more discerning about who gets to climb the ranks. By focusing on body art, certain capable individuals will be barred from career advancements because of, oddly enough, the colors (plural) of their skin.
Though discipline and standards need to be in place, I believe too much focus on tattoos could be a mistake. If American history tells us anything, another war or conflict is just around the corner. Capable warriors willing to fight and command should never be overlooked because of their body art. Of course, gang art or obscene characters should be banned, but if a man or woman is willing to go to war for his or her country, a tattoo etched in during service or when younger shouldn’t prevent this from happening.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote and lectured about how the rituals surrounding tattoos in many cultures were often a rite of passage that literally transformed the body. The pain endured, and the images left on the skin after a tattooing represented the transition from a child into a man. While some people might just get a tattoo for a drunken laugh or because it’s trendy, for others it signifies a vital part of their personal identity.
A tattooed warrior, be it a member of the armed services, a drug cartel or even a biker gang, becomes part of something bigger — something almost mythological in proportion. (Yes, I concede, not all of the folks listed here fight for noble causes).
While I’m in danger of becoming a little too poetic, I hope the American Army — while maintaining fair and important regulations regarding the appearance of its soldiers — goes a bit lighter on its current tattooed warriors. The Army will most likely need these fighters down the road. Sometime it’s important to look past the surface of the skin.
Carl Pettit is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.