If there is one factor that gets underestimated more than anything else in times of war and among fighting forces, it’s cleanliness. It’s not something glamorous or a topic that most people want to discuss. It’s so basic that it might seem uninteresting. It’s also so basic that it sometimes gets forgotten in the field by combatants themselves, and this can have dire consequences on human health.
Recently in Military History Quarterly (MHQ), we published an article about how Union commander “Fighting Joe” Hooker breathed new life into the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War by getting the men to take regular baths, cut their hair, wash their clothes, change their underwear once a week (at least), and remember that other food besides meat actually existed — such as vegetables, for example. Hooker also kept the boys on their toes about cleaning their “rooms.” Apparently, these measures had an extraordinary effect, and onlookers were astonished at the radiant transformation of Hooker’s army into a healthier and much happier group. Reading the story of the Army of the Potomac made me wonder if these particular gentlemen were raised without mothers. Did nobody teach these guys how to keep themselves even a little bit clean? Hooker’s approach to tending his troops reminded me more than a little of “The Washing Song” from the 1937 Disney musical Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Other armies across world history were arguably more sanitary than Hooker’s army, even in worse environments! Even ancient Roman soldiers cut and washed their hair — in fact, Roman soldiers tended to beat a path to the baths whenever they could. Whatever the case, Fighting Joe ably transformed his troops with simple soap and water.
Sometimes it’s almost impossible, or at least extremely difficult, to keep oneself spick and span amid a war, particularly in harsh and remote climates. Men who fought in Vietnam were often forced to endure long periods without being able to bathe, change or clean up. Many veterans often write about how much something like a simple shower could brighten up their outlook. Despite circumstances beyond their control, many Vietnam veterans used their initiative to keep clean. Some even resorted to unusual methods — as Jim Vaughn did with the Water Buffalo.
In this photo, Cpl. Catarino Marques of Company K of the 1st Marine Division is making the most of an unconventional opportunity for a bath — hopping into a large pottery jar to get rinsed off by a local Vietnamese farmer. There’s no doubt this had a salutary effect amid the intense summer heat of Vietnam in June 1967.