Kēs Off

There appears to be a bit of friction between the US Army and some of its Sikh recruits about whether the soldiers should be allowed to maintain the turban, uncut hair and beard that are emblematic of their faith.

This is likely to be cast as a rights issue, but it is of course nothing of the sort; there is no “right” to serve in the military. The question, then, is whether the Army’s interest in regulating matters of hair and dress — for the sake of both safety and uniformity — trumps any question of religious discrimination, and whether it is in the Army’s interest to make exceptions for certain groups.

My inclination is usually to side with the organization in cases like this; for example, the lowering of physical-strength standards for firefighters so as to admit more women has always seemed to me a triumph of ideology over practical reality. It is the Army’s business to decide how best to maintain an optimal fighting force; if, for example, I were to insist that if hired as a soldier I must be allowed to wear a thong, sunbonnet, and rollerblades into battle, I would quite rightly be told to look for work elsewhere. In my mind, religious strictures are no different: if your religion requires something that is incompatible with the way the Army works, you are free not to join.

The question, then is whether the value of having Sikhs in the Army exceeds the drawbacks of bending the rules to accommodate them, and this is an empirical question for the DoD to settle. In this case, though, the answer might indeed be yes: the Sikhs have a long and distinguished martial tradition, and if they can get a helmet on it may well make sense to allow them to serve.

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6 Comments

  1. George says

    I just wonder what would these Sikh do if they are asked to participate in the religious war that is going on right now between Christians and Muslims, or the radicals from both faiths, what would they do if they are asked to join a war that is not part of their core faith. This seems to be more important than the turban issue. Could they say no? If they don\’t, would put at odd with their teachings? humm

    Posted April 16, 2009 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I wasn’t aware that the US Army was involved in any religious wars, George.

    Posted April 16, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  3. MikeZ says

    The question, in fact, is whether we can recover from mental image of Malcolm in a thong, sunbonnet, and rollerblades. “Yikes!” just may fit here.

    – M

    Posted April 17, 2009 at 8:57 am | Permalink
  4. “The question, in fact, is whether we can recover from mental image of Malcolm in a thong, sunbonnet, and rollerblades.”

    Just what I was thinking.

    Posted April 17, 2009 at 9:01 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Do forgive me for that, gentlemen. Indeed, the effect on the enemy might be quite devastating, but I’m afraid the collateral damage would be unacceptable.

    Posted April 17, 2009 at 9:19 am | Permalink
  6. It did, however, make me laugh out loud, though I am glad to report that at no point was I tempted to type “lol”, except just then.

    Posted April 17, 2009 at 8:37 pm | Permalink