Wearing a uniform is not always a sure sign of the character inside

Along with all their other obvious functions in the military, uniforms are also a visual expression of the importance and desirability of uniform behavior by the people wearing them. It’s a sound idea: Having a gaggle of individualist foot soldiers acting on their own notions of “forward” is unlikely to result in an effective action.

Uniforms are no guarantee of consistent and desirable behavior, as Philip Beidler makes clear in his reflections on the character of the Vietnam-era U.S. Army, “Home of the Infantry.” Two officers wore essentially the same infantry uniform in those years, Brig. Gen. William Bond and Lieutenant William Calley. But in their behavior, the two men were poles apart. Calley participated in the tragic atrocity at My Lai, and it is no exaggeration to say that he and his troops dishonored the uniform and the service it represents. Bond, at the other extreme of behavior, died in his uniform leading his men into a difficult battle — the lone Army general officer to be killed in Vietnam combat.

Humans are a fractious lot, and it is at least arguable that some measure of individuality, of anti-uniform behavior, can be seen as an expression of the strong personal leadership that any good army would consider highly desirable. General George Patton’s nonregulation ivory-handled side arms were an expression of what he was, and what he was was a formidable officer and leader. And, in this issue’s cover story, the flagrantly non-standard white cape affected by Prince Dimitri Amilakvari, a career officer in the 13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion, was part and parcel of who — and what — he was during the brigade’s actions in World War II. Those actions culminated in a bitter opening fight at the Battle of El Alamein in which Amilakvari was killed and then buried in his idiosyncratic cape. So, much as all things military strive for uniformity, perhaps transcending uniformity is a hallmark of true leadership.