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Reflections on the great sleeve-rolling debate

It has been a noteworthy week. On Tuesday, for the first time in 32 years, four semi-obsolescent A-10 Warthogs belonging to Michigan's Air National Guard landed once again on a public highway - in Estonia. Vladimir Putin, be worried. Or not.

On Wednesday, business in the House of Representatives ground to a halt, if such a generous phrase can be applied to this Congress, as Democrats demanding a vote on gun control legislation staged a sit-in that lasted 25 hours until Speaker Paul Ryan finally adjourned the House over their objections.

On Thursday, a divided Supreme Court left in place a lower court ruling quashing President Obama's effort to legalize the resident status of 4 million illegal immigrants, but rejected another challenge to affirmative action in college admissions.

And on Friday, chancelleries (and stock markets) worldwide awoke to the British people's decision to leave Europe's Economic Union, virtually guaranteeing another referendum on Scottish independence. 

In the Army, though, all of these momentous developments were overwhelmed by a single burning strategic question: "camo in" or "camo out"?

Few military policies have been subject to as much debate, have prompted more angst, and have been revised as often, as the question whether soldiers and Marines should or should not be permitted to roll up the sleeves of their utility uniforms in the summer.

This is typically a peacetime controversy (in combat, uniform policies tend to be honored as much in the breach as in the observance). Arguments pro and con go all the way back to the Cold War, but until fairly recently, whether to permit rolled-up sleeves had been left largely to unit commanders to resolve. 

But in 2005, the Army banned the practice on the (dubious) grounds that it invited sunburn and insect bites. In 2011, the Marine Corps unwisely followed suit. Complaints from soldiers and Marines and episodic local rebellions followed as the night the day.

In 2014, the Marine Corps finally saw the light. Admitted then-Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos in a plaintive Facebook post, "I can't tell you how many times we have been asked the persistent question, 'Commandant, are we ever going to return to SLEEVES UP?'" 

In March, to what one Marine Corps spokesman described as a "deafeningÖroar of approval from across the Corps," the leadership capitulated. Rolled-up sleeves and hairy tattooed arms were back.

Typically, Army leaders made of sterner stuff weren't so easily rolled (pardon the pun). But a week ago Thursday, on a visit to Fort Hood, Texas, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley announced that, following a 10-day trial, soldiers will be able to roll up the sleeves on their Army Combat Uniforms.

That decision, however, only has prompted a new and equally bitter intramural debate, for while Army leaders may finally have surrendered to force de morale, they aren't prepared to accept total visual insubordination and abandon uniformity altogether. 

Accordingly, the vital question now roiling the force is, are sleeves to be rolled up such that the rolled portion of the sleeve displays the camouflage pattern printed on the outside of the fabric, requiring a special rolling technique? Or, as in the Marine Corps, are they to be rolled normally, thus revealing the uncamouflaged interior fabric.

Phrased that way, of course, the question would seem to answer itself. Imitate the Jarheads??? Heaven forfend! Unsurprisingly, in an informal poll launched earlier this week by Army Times, voting was running more than 2-1 in favor of "camo out."

As Specialist Dillon Mittan, from Denton, Texas, declared, "I hope it's done like it was for BDUs, with outside facing out. I think it looks more professional, and those prideful Marines wouldn't be able to give any lip about us copying them." Amen.

Not all agree, however. Writing in Thursday's Army Times, Ohio Army National Guard Capt. Russell P. Galeti Jr., an infantry veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, complains that "Camo Out is a relic of the past."

"Stripping their arguments bare," Galeti argues, "Camo Out can be distilled to the same, tired old refrains from those with their glory days long behind them: 'it's the way we've always done it' and 'we're not the Marines.'"

But Capt. Galeti isn't content merely to accuse the camo-outers of nostalgic Colonel Blimpish-ness. In resurrecting the sleeve-rolling practice of a BDU-clad Army, he perceives an insidious rejection of the Army's 15-year experience in stability operations and wide-area security in favor of reverting to what he clearly believes to be an anachronistic preoccupation with conventional combined arms maneuver.

Of course, there's the problem that, increasingly concerned about an aggressive China and resurgent Russia and nervous about what amounts to a 15-year hiatus in attention to high-intensity warfare, his leaders are themselves pursuing just such a recalibration.

But I doubt that they'd recognize its connection to sleeve-rolling technique. It takes a junior officer to achieve that level of strategic discernment.

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