Politics & Policy

A Soldier in the Great War

Army Capt. Tejdeep Singh Rattan during training at Camp Bullis, Texas. (Photo: U.S. Army)
Bearded Sikhs have been fighting America’s enemies since World War I.

An epidemic of pogonophobia is upon the land — pogonophobia being the irrational fear of beards. It comes in response to a Pentagon directive that gives some latitude to U.S. troops who wear beards — and turbans, and yarmulkes — for religious reasons. The usual rabble was out in force, complaining that the military is knuckling under to liberal sensibilities: “PC gone mad,” one conservative blogger put it, arguing that the change comes “thanks to Obama’s love of Muslims.” The sentiment was repeated elsewhere. With apologies to Willi Schlamm, sometimes the problem with conservatism is conservatives.

The main group of people seeking the change were not Muslims but Sikhs, who have been working on the issue with the support of the Becket Fund, an outstanding legal-advocacy group that works to strengthen religious liberties — you’ll find them doing excellent work against Obamacare’s abuses of religious rights.

In cynical moments, I’ve often thought that the American Sikh community ought to get together and sponsor some kind of public-service announcement with the theme: “Not that kind of turban.” Because Americans are a fundamentally decent people, there were very few reprisals against our Muslim neighbors after 9/11 — but such knuckleheaded acts as occurred were frequently directed against Sikhs, who wear beards and turbans. In Islam, turban-wearing is part of the “confirmed tradition” but not a religious compulsion. It is a compulsion among Sikhs.

Anybody who knows anything about the military history of Sikhs knows that they are precisely the people you want in your military. The Sikhs’ version of the Alamo was the Battle of Saragarhi in 1897, in which 21 Sikhs belonging to the 36th Sikh Regiment took on 10,000 Afghan invaders in defense of what was then British India. They fought to the death, inflicting untold damage on the invaders before being wiped out. Suffice it to say that a religion requiring as one of five articles of faith the carrying of a dagger is very likely a good place to go looking for soldiers.

Sikhs have served in the U.S. military since at least World War I, during which Bhagat Singh Thind, a British national studying in the United States, volunteered to fight the Hun with the doughboys. He was promoted to sergeant and given an honorable discharge. He later went through a long, drawn-out legal battle to become a U.S. citizen, having his citizenship granted and revoked several times as the courts sorted out whether he qualified as a “free white man,” to whom naturalization was at the time restricted. (“White” was a fairly fluid category at the time, and high-born Indians often were designated “white” for legal purposes.) Eventually the dispute was settled in his favor, and he became known as an author of Transcendentalist-flavored spiritual books, including Jesus, the Christ: In the Light of Spiritual Science. He was an admirer of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman — he could hardly have been more of an American if he’d been born in Chicago.

He went off to war in his beard and turban.

When the Japanese thought they were going to march across Burma into India in 1944, they suffered the worst defeat in their history, and for many of them, beards and turbans were the last thing they ever saw. Today the Sikh Light Infantry is one of the most celebrated elite regiments in the Indian army.

American special-forces troops wear beards today, partly to blend in to local populations and partly because they often operate far from running water and fresh Mach 3 cartridges. If you made a photo collage of the American military leaders who had kicked the most tail, you’d have a pogonophobe’s nightmare: The hirsute General Sherman was an absolute terror, General Greene sported an extravagant beard while defending Culp’s Hill, General Grant had a conservative 19th-century beard, and they were all under the direction of a commander-in-chief whose facial hair would have made Brooklyn proud. On the other side, they were facing a bearded General Lee, and J. E. B. Stuart’s famous encirclement of the Union Army was not slowed down by his full-Santa facial hair. Lieutenant General John McAllister Schofield’s beard reached to his navel, and it didn’t stop him from stomping the Rebels into paste at Franklin and Nashville.

The Spartans thought so highly of their beards that shaving was a standard punishment for cowardice.

The new Pentagon rules place the final decisions about beards, turbans, yarmulkes, and other religious exceptions to the usual dress code in the hands of commanders, where they belong.

I’m an admitted Sikhophile, and not just because I found Corbusier’s Chandigarh to be so much more amenable a place than Lutyens’ Delhi. (I’m told that my high estimate of Corbusier is my least conservative opinion.) Drawn by our free economy and open society, many of the finest sons and daughters of India have made America their home. Some of them wear beards and turbans. Some of them are ready to put their lives in jeopardy in defense of their country, its Constitution, and its principles. To exclude them is not only un-American and far removed from historical military norms — including our own — it is foolish. We want the very best, and free societies are best defended by free men. The military aesthetic of the Eisenhower era is not the only acceptable one.

And I suspect that most of our Sikh recruits can manage three pull-ups, sporting turbans or not.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.


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