Special forces wild man look (beard, long hair)

I don’t know if this is actually an urban legend/stereotype, but it seems that members of elite special forces units like the Army Delta Force or the Navy SEALS often sport a look that would otherwise be considered unbecoming of a military man and undermining discipline, i. e. they have long, scruffy beards, long hair and their uniforms look highly individualistic (if they are at all wearing traditional uniforms).

One explanation I’ve read is that this appearance is a (preemptive) type of camouflage: They are trained to be deployed behind enemy lines and to blend into civilian populations. And looking like a bum makes that easier than being clean-shaven with a crew cut.

Is that really the reason or are these soldiers just given a lot of leeway because they are the elite of the elite, they have unusually high professional and personal standards anyway and therefore can be trusted and they don’t need to be bossed around, supervised and micromanaged all the time (unlike the run-of-the mill grunt)?

Are there military regulations that specifically exempt members of these units from standard rules?

You seem to have it covered. These units are considered elite and do not need to be micromanaged. It’s also not so much a matter of looking like a bum as it is observing the local culture. In Afghanistan, most men wear beards. If they were in a country where everyone wore pink wigs, they would wear pink wigs too.

And let’s face it, when you are miles from civilization for months on end it is just more practical that way.

The actual policy is usually an “Exception to Policy” memorandum signed by the unit commander.

They are exempted from any rules inasmuch as their organization has its own rules, guidelines, etc.


Well, all the guys in my local bar that claim to have been Special Forces look like bums…

(Seriously, guys, why is it always “Special Forces, but I have trouble talking about it…”? Why not make up a believable background for yourself?:“Yeah, I was Supply Corps in 'Nam. Filing in the base office, seven, eight hours a day. Sometimes at night, I can still hear that stapler…”)

I don’t think it’s so much that these guys want to look scruffy, etc… but rather that being clean shaven, in extraordinarly good physical shape, and having a high & tight hair cut tends to telegraph “MILITARY!!!” like nothing else save wearing a uniform does. And some portion of their job is to operate behind enemy lines and/or operate with insurgent forces, so making themselves conspicuous isn’t a smart thing.

They can’t really do much about the great shape part (they kind of have to be that way), but there’s no reason they have to have the hair restrictions, so they don’t. I think it’s a combination of specific explicit allowances for those units, as well as a recognition that they’re all career professional soldiers.

Perhaps the irony is that this look could achieve the absolute opposite and be a compromising telltale under certain circumstances.

Let’s say there are homegrown terrorists at home or insurgents while on deployment who are out to target service members, and if possible the ones that they would consider to be their potentially most dangerous adversaries or high-value targets: An apparently physically fit, “Western” looking young man with long hair and beard does stick out, definitely from a larger population of other soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines who function as regular grunts, supply clerks, mechanics and cooks who do exactly look like one would expect.

For some sorts of missions, it’s advantageous to be able to blend in with the local populace. Before deployment, it strikes me as much easier to put a “special operator” in a barber chair and trim/cut/shave his hair or beard as needed than to tell a “by the regulation” groomed operator “You’re going boots on the ground in 36 hours. I want you to grow a 2 inch beard and enough hair to pull into a pony tail by then. Get cracking!”

Keep in mind: If you want in on as many operations as possible, then you maintain a look that is as flexible as possible. You might forgo ALL tattoos, even those that are technically within guidelines, because that’s one less marking that could be a problem on some potential mission. Sure, 90% of the time, a tattoo might not be an issue, but it might be a risk on a specific assignment.

Long hair and beards have fallen into favor with some, because they help get you into assignments where these things help.


This is probably the fundamental reason. It’s amazing how just a bit of scruffiness can impact how other people view you.

My brother used to buy tax-free cigarettes is some shops, and days when he was clean-shaven, he was often rebuffed when asking for these, because the sellers thought he was a cop. If he went in with a few days growth of beard, though, he never had a problem.

Kinda makes you wonder…maybe we need some special forces guys that are bit old…a bit pudgey…probably couldn’t kick ANYBODY"S ass without a weapon…but know their shit and can use a gun like a mofo…kinda like a cross between James Bond and random trailer trash.

It’s not ALWAYS about muscles and being able to swim 10 miles in freezing water…

I’ve known quite a few special operators who have deployed overseas, and the following is my own opinion that I’ve never bothered to ask them.

I think the reasons for the beards are somewhat to fit in a little better with populations when they need to talk or work with local men who also wear beards, and also a whole lot that it’s currently cool to have a big ol’ bushy deployment beard. Again, just my opinion.

I had a friend that was in signals like me it ended up attached to a special forces unit at Fort Bragg and he got to do the whole grow your hair out and quit shaving thing. He told me that the special forces unit was great because they were a lot more relaxed about all the pomp and circumstance that is so common in the military and I guess because most of these guys were already elites at the top of their game they were actually paradoxically more laid back in many ways not abiding by all the regulations of military pleasantries when talking with one another in the unit even if they weren’t all the same rank.

When I was in the U S Coast Guard 30 years ago (“back in the Old Guard when the men with made of steel and the ships were made of wood”) one TT (telephone tech) I was stationed with earlier had just gotten orders to Italy. He told me he was allowed to have longish hair, a beard and wear civvies as protection from Red Brigade activity. Not sure what protection he would have if he tried to speak; he was of Polish ancestry. Maybe he could have used a few Polish words to fool them, as one of my junior high teachers spoke some German that he picked up as a POW to keep from being harassed by Italian street peddlers.

For what it’s worth, it’s not just special forces operators who are allowed to grow beards. We were allowed to grow beards while on extended deployments on submarines so long as the boat was at sea. This would often be for several months at a time. Those who grew beards had to prove to the Chief of the Boat (COB) on a weekly basis that they could still get a tight seal for the emergency breathing masks.

Everyone had to shave and get a haircut before we pulled into a port, though.

(Haircuts were given by some volunteer sailor who had taken a day-long course in how to be a barber.)

Other military standards were often relaxed as well, like having shoes that were shined. For example, we had an Ensign (who was an Academy graduate) who was shining his shoes (with a can of shoe polish) in the officer’s wardroom once. The [Chief] Engineer (his boss) found him there and proceeded to rip into him. First off, he was told, he was releasing volatile contaminants into the ship’s atmosphere that we were all going to have to breathe for the next few months. Second, he was told, there was surely something more important he could be doing with his time than bullshit Academy spit-shining, like making sure his division was squared away, or working on his quals…

Along with beards the ones who operated in Afghanistan also learned to ride horses.

In Vietnam the US forces took to eating Vietnamese food because the Cong could smell things like pepperoni. Also they adopted Vietnamese hygiene after they realized they could smell cologne and scented soap.

My first boat actually sent a guy to a civilian barber school in Honolulu. The first few haircuts he gave were … interesting … but he was quite good after a little practice.

The Long Range Desert Group were at the forefront in the unconventional warfare/unconventional facial hair stakes:

The special forces team the staged the failed rescue attempt of US embassy personnel in Tehran in 1979 was like that. The young commandos had long hair and beards, indistinguishable from the young Iranian militants who stormed the US embassy. Their commander, Charlie Beckwith, looked according to them like a “dangerous hobo.”

When I was stationed at LORSTA Marcus Island, we didn’t even have that!. Just whoever wanted to try it and if you were a willing guinea pig. The first guy put the shave too close to my head and I had an imprint of a razor blade. After that, I told the next guy to just give me a crew cut…I wasn’t leaving the Island. Most military people didn’t want crewcuts in the early 1980s…they want hair as long as regulations permitted.

  We had to have regulation haircuts but had some leniency being in the tropics. We could wear plain white t shirt instead of dark blue work shirt, have work trousers cut into shorts and wear sneakers instead of boondoggers.