I have a confession to make: I bailed on Mustache March. Yes, I turned my back on this time-honored tradition in the military flying community – I shaved my Lip Rug. I have grown several mustaches throughout my years as a fighter pilot. Historically I can count on irritating my wife every March as I unite with the bros in growing a Flavor Saver, but this year I just couldn’t stick with it. I don’t look good with a Molestache and most guys I fly with look ridiculous with one as well, but it’s the unity – the participation with the bros in a combined endeavor – that builds morale and strengthens the team. Unfortunately this year, I am not alone in abandoning this annual tradition. 2014 has seen record low participation from the fighter community in Mustache March, and I think I know the reason.
Let’s digress for a moment. If you’ve ever played on an organized sports team (and I hope you have!) you know how important it is that each player is loyal to the team and dedicated to its success. Psychologists have studied the various social dynamics associated with being part of a team. A lot of money has been spent by professional sport franchises to see to it that their teams perform optimally and with a high degree of cohesion. Team building is more than just a catch phrase; it’s a necessity when it comes to optimizing performance. Military teams are no different. They must perform together on a very high level in order to be effective when the fog and friction of war is present.
So, how do you ensure your team is cohesive and performs well together? That is a question Air Force leaders are continually trying to answer. Most recently the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Mark Welsh, has tried a novel approach to mitigate the morale crushing effects of force shaping and sequestration. In February 2014 Gen. Welsh extended an invitation to men of every rank and station in the Air Force to join in the tradition of Mustache March. I personally think his motives were pure and that the invitation to all members of the Air Force to participate (in either a growing or a judging capacity) was good for the overall force. Unfortunately, there were two negative results of this positive action.
First, it’s brought out the whiners and complainers. A female Air Force major wrote a scathing article in the Air Force Times about how this mustache competition is just another sign that the military is a “boy’s club”. It’s unfortunate that someone can turn something meant to be lighthearted and fun into an issue of gender discrimination. It is this kind of narrow-minded thinking that is slowly corroding morale amongst the ranks. According to the Air Force Personnel website, males (aka mustache growers) make up 81.1% of the total force. Many units don’t even have women in them – not because they aren’t allowed, but because statistically there aren’t enough females in the force to support this. To be clear, the offended major probably has been subject to discrimination on some small level during her career. But to come out in the media with an assault on this upbeat morale builder serves only to alienate herself and frustrate others. Unfortunately, because leadership is trying to widely boost morale with an innocent mustache contest, we now have to put up with more whining and complaining.
Second, a broadening of this tradition has made it less special to fighter pilots in general. By taking a tradition observed by a small group and making it a ritual for everyone, the “sacredness” of Mustache March has been lost. The tradition was born when Robin Olds – probably the most revered fighter pilot in USAF history – grew his famous handlebar mustache during the Vietnam War. Colonel Olds had been fighting many battles with the higher ups on behalf of the men getting slaughtered in the skies. He was tired of losing arguments relating to the lack of information flow and ineffective strategy by those living comfortably on the side of the world from Vietnam. The decision to grow a mustache was made one night in the O’ Club and turned into a crusade.
As the “bulletproof” mustache grew, so did its significance in the mind of Col. Olds and his men. It wasn’t meant to be a “middle finger” to leadership in a broad sense (as assumed by the upset major in her article). Like all of Robin’s targeting, the mustache was very precise in its intent. He had been losing many battles with leadership in arguments pertaining to when and how his men could target the enemy and prosecute their attacks. That was the reason he rebelled, not just for the sake of rebelling. Fighter pilots honor this man for sticking to his guns and doing all he could for his people.
Growing a mustache every March is not just a way to pay tribute to the legacy of Robin Olds, but more importantly, it solidifies us as a group. According to Social Identity Theory, groups become stronger as they achieve positive distinctiveness. Growing a mustache in March was a way for fighter pilots to distinguish our group from the rest of the masses. I know other groups were honoring this tradition as well, but a requirement from the top extinguishes any distinctiveness we thought we had in honoring this tradition.
Never fear, the mustache will not die. You can’t kill awesomeness. The tradition will live on in deployments and may eventually find footing again in the month of March. It will live on in the face of ill-informed naysayers and will continue to be a source of pride for the men who grow them. I will yet again grow a mastodonic mustache but on my own terms, and not at the behest of others. Robin would want it that way. In the end, there is no disputing the fact that mustaches and upper lips were made for each other.
Editor’s Note: Kudos to men like Brent Owens who sport a phenomenal Soup Catcher year round! Stay thirsty my friend!