In the Army Now

These two guys are officers in the U.S. Army:

kamaldeep kalsi tejdeep rattan.jpg

In USA Today: Dentist Tejdeep Singh Rattan (right) is the first turbaned Sikh to graduate from U.S. officer basic training since 1984. (He is pictured with Kamaldeep Kalsi, who is doing basic training this summer.)

We heard about them last year, when they were first granted the exemption. (The Langar Hall had a post on the subject here.)

As I understand it, this is not a permanent policy change — in the future, observant Sikhs joining the U.S. military will again need to apply for a special exemption to uniform requirements to be allowed to serve while wearing a turban and unshorn beard. The fact that both Kalsi and Rattan have medical training makes me think that things might be different for someone applying for the same waiver at the ground level. That said, this still seems like a significant shift on a symbolic level, and I would fully expect there to be at least some controversy about it.

Predictably, some of the reactions I’m seeing online to this change are not exactly positive. The following comment on the story at USA Today is pretty typical:

This is an utter disgrace to the United States and the United States Army. How on God’s green earth did they allow this? It never ceases to amaze me the stupidity in our governments leadership. A civilian made this call on allowing this “individual” (that’s what he is not a trooper), to graduate.

But another commenter responded to that statement much more supportively:

He’s a Captain in the US Army. I find your disrespect for our military disgusting, ignorant and anti-American.

What kinds of reactions have people been hearing to this news?

(Incidentally, the Amardeep Singh quoted in the USA Today article is not me.)

69 thoughts on “In the Army Now

  1. Awesome! I’m glad the military gave them and their religion the respect it deserves… I have to saw, both these fellows look quite dapper in their uniforms…

  2. I’m very proud for Dr.Kalsi and Dr.Rattan. I’m sure that they will work very hard and sincerely for the defense of the USA. In the process, they will give more favorable attention to Sikhs, in particular, and South Asians/Middle Easterners, in general.

    However, I do feel that they may alienate far more people than endear. Most people who join the armed forces are from the rustic rural heartlands of the USA. They have a very constant definition of the USA and how they view our social institutions and demographics (i.e. xenophobic).

    These Sardars are very noble, but I think that by joining the armed forces to defend the USA, that they have established and expanded their own personal freedoms that they may have to defend as well in the future. This manifest display of turbans, which frankly reminds less savory elements of the army of Middle Easternerns and Taliban, draws unwanted and harmful attention to the Sikh men, since they put themselves in a compromising position.

  3. I’ve read mostly positive comments, but about 20% are on par with the “disgrace” idiocy or worse, like saying saying these soldiers’ colleagues would need to wear bullet proof vests around them (presumably, the cretinous mentality that equates any beared brown dude up to and including Antonio Banderas with Islamic terrorism).

  4. I am sure they will do the US Army proud the same way their fellow Sikhs do the Indian army proud. This news is being linked at even local newspaper sites which is where I saw it first. That is a good sign because more people will now be slightly aware that Sikhs exist in America.

  5. This manifest display of turbans, which frankly reminds less savory elements of the army of Middle Easternerns and Taliban

    I’ve always been confused about this. Isn’t that conflation of Sikhs with Middle Easterners a “feature” not a “bug”? That is, back in the day of the construction of Sikh identity (when Punjabi Hindu families like mine were raising one son as a Sikh), weren’t they “designed” to look “like” the “enemy” (i.e., Middle Eastern/Turkic invaders of Bharat) for reasons of morale, etc.?

  6. What few realise is that Indian warriors, not only Sikhs, but many others have fought for centuries wearing some variation of the turban. Sikh Indians in the military wear helmets when required and the specially designed patka like helmet that is now worn is pretty versatile. Way to go Captain!

  7. (when Punjabi Hindu families like mine were raising one son as a Sikh), weren’t they “designed” to look “like” the “enemy” (i.e., Middle Eastern/Turkic invaders of Bharat) for reasons of morale, etc.?

    In families like yours, quite possibly, yes. Who can speak authoritatively and objectively about such notions, though?

  8. Super, super chic!

    Heard a young French boy chanting this to himself looking at a very elegant party dining in the restaurant we were eating in. The phrase comes back whenever I catch sight of the very smartly dressed. As it does with this photo.

    Congratulations to both gents on gaining their Officer rank!

  9. in a related matter, the Oregon Legislature repealed the statute barring wearing of religious dress by public school teachers…something that effectively prevented Sikhs from teaching. the state courts had deemed this constitutional–because it included all religions (you couldn’t wear a cross, etc) and the government had a compelling state interest of separation of church and state.

    but it never got up to scotus where i think the conservative majority would’ve deemed it unconstituional and i wouldn’t be surprised if they even plucked off one of the left-leaning justices, who are generally more authoritarian on these matters.

    so this religious accommodation stuff is a trend.

  10. Wish I had the link to post of a photo showing two British Sikhs in their handsome blue turbans in one of the Buckingham Palace regiments.

  11. This reminds of the “NY Post” story I read about 2 years ago re: a Hasidic Jewish man who became an NYPD cop. There are also Hasidic social workers and psychologists in NYC.

  12. Darth,

    There is a more profound reason why some Hindus in Punjab have as a matter of custom raised a son in every generation as a Sikh. It tells you a lot about the sentiments of both Sikhs and Hindus towards each other and their own traditions. But this blog is not hospitable to such ideas even if the tone and tenor of its meisters has changed a lot since the founding. This would land us square in the midst of what academics claim these traditions are and what is actually lived out day to day. Let’s keep away from the discussion.

  13. first thoughts

    • cute baby

    • religious exemption for dress probably not a good thing in the military. they make you do a lot of annoying things in the military in terms of appearance, can’t see how this wouldn’t engender resentment

    • perhaps religious segregation by unit should be allowed to maintain esprit and uniformity

  14. @jyotsana on March 23, 2010 3:02 PM · Direct link

    wow, sepia mutiny is mentally persecuting a supremacist like you. The horror!! Try HAF’s website, they love people like you there.

  15. Jyotsana, I am intrigued by your #14. Can you say more? How am I supposed to act around Sikhs in the US? What am I supposed to cover up? Growing up in India this aspect of the history was well-known. I don’t mean to offend anyone, but as a graduate student here I’m not always aware of the “red lines.”

  16. Browny,

    I would but HAF doesn’t carry a blog you see? There are of course other blogs, but I shan’t bore you with knowledge, since you are quite happy with ignorance!

    Shilpa,

    This doesn’t have to do with how you should behave with Sikhs in the US or anywhere else. Civility, courtesy and respect are universal values. And when you visit a Gurdwara the maryada that is due is simple, cover your head, don’t wear shorts or tank tops, be sober, don’t swear, don’t obstruct others, volunteer.

  17. And when you visit a Gurdwara the maryada that is due is simple, cover your head, don’t wear shorts or tank tops, be sober, don’t swear, don’t obstruct others, volunteer.

    So close!

    Wait. . . how sober is “sober” exactly?

  18. Most people who join the armed forces are from the rustic rural heartlands of the USA. They have a very constant definition of the USA and how they view our social institutions and demographics (i.e. xenophobic).

    In the army, you do rely on your pals. Surely that should teach you to look past all these divisions. No?

  19. Most people who join the armed forces are from the rustic rural heartlands of the USA. They have a very constant definition of the USA and how they view our social institutions and demographics (i.e. xenophobic).

    fwiw, i think this is grossly simplistic. the military is famously one of the most racially integrated institutions in american society, arguably the most integrated. it is true that very few college educated blue-state whites join the army. i assume that an economically and educationally advanced segment like indian americans are somewhat underrepresented, just like the jews.

    re: effectiveness of sikhs in the indian army vs. the american. first, i don’t think it matters too much re: sikhs in the american army, there aren’t many anyhow. additionally, in india sikhs have a reputation as good fighters. in america, many think they’re muslims. the issue isn’t the sikhs, but the perception of them dressing differently. and on a bigger note, there’s the issue of how to treat people differently based on religion in an institution which demands on uniformity. at least depending on branch. (the same thing comes up in other service sector jobs, where people who dress differently to show their subculture are expected to conform, but religious people who show their subculture may take their objection to conformity through the legal system because of the slack given to religious nonconformity)

    i don’t think it’s a big issue overall. but i think religious groups who need to dress in a particular way should avoid institutions which have particular demands. if we had conscription this would be a totally different issue re: religious conscience. as it is, it’s a voluntary military force. though i do believe mormons get to wear their sacred underwear. there are urban legends of the underwear blocking bullets.

  20. first thoughts - cute baby - religious exemption for dress probably not a good thing in the military. they make you do a lot of annoying things in the military in terms of appearance, can’t see how this wouldn’t engender resentment - perhaps religious segregation by unit should be allowed to maintain esprit and uniformity

    If your next thoughts on the subject are anything like your 1st ones, then just go ahead and make them your 1st/last thoughts on the subject.

  21. It will be an interesting experiment to see how this works out. Personally I think this will not be a widespread policy. Every military is within its rights to have a uniform code of appearance, specially since nobody is forced to join the military these days. Note that the Indian government had an official policy requiring anyone joining a Sikh regiment to grow their hair and beard.

    http://www.unp.co.in/f15/grow-your-hair-indian-army-33586/

  22. If your next thoughts on the subject are anything like your 1st ones, then just go ahead and make them your 1st/last thoughts on the subject.

    you’re a dick :-)

  23. That’s why I rarely read the comment sections of online newspaper articles, whether regional or national–too many trolls of all kinds and especially right-wing trolls.

  24. @24 Kojak: Note the words, “uniform code of appearance”. Armies that deal with a lot of diversity – like the Indian Army – don’t care whether you need to grow your hair or cut your hair or wear your hair in five pony tails (just kidding about the last). The main thing is that armies like these have learned to deal with religious diversity by stressing some common minimum standards for appearance. So, Sikhs in the Indian Army can grow their hair (those in the Sikh Regiment are required to do so) but they are not allowed to let their beards run wild or their turbans sit crooked on their heads. Beards have to be rolled into a net, turbans have to tied just so, and only in a few regulation colors – it’s all about appearance. Perhaps if the US Army evolved similar common standards for “different” looking soldiers so that they all present a standard DOD-approved appearance, I think you’ll find most internal opposition fading away.

  25. Razib, you take the cake on stupidity. Unless you were being sarcastic about the separation thing.

    Boston maresh, i don’t’ think you should speak for others. Even though i have a little brother in the marines (he cut his hair) and am a sikh man who wears a turban, i still wouldn’t speak for all sikh men. My opinion is if other people are ignorant/unaware of the difference, the onus isn’t on these two soldiers to prove them wrong. I am proud of these soldiers. I know they will represent us well. Maybe you don’t know how to sack up, but “unwanted” and “harmful attention” isn’t something they are afraid of.

    In general, i agree with the army’s stance. They are very strict on everything. They need things to be the same for all soldiers. I think its counterproductive to have gear made for sikhs, muslims (who wish to keep a beard or wear a turban), jews, or other religions that would require alterations.There was a big uproar over dragon skin a few years ago. Its a body armor that is much better than what the army uses. They disallowed them.

    I think its ok that the only way you can wear a turban is if you get an exception. Its obviously these soldiers got an exception because of their background. My little brother who is just out of high school does not have any unique skills. For positions that will never (or are very very unlikely) see combat, they can use exceptions.

  26. I read this few days back and was hoping you post it. Glad you posted it here. Sikhs are fundamental part of Indian Army. History shows critical role sikhs played in independence struggle and subsequent wars with neighbor. Gen Arora was the commandar in chief for in Eastern region in the most decisive war to create Bangladesh in 1971.

  27. “I’ve always been confused about this. Isn’t that conflation of Sikhs with Middle Easterners a “feature” not a “bug”? That is, back in the day of the construction of Sikh identity (when Punjabi Hindu families like mine were raising one son as a Sikh), weren’t they “designed” to look “like” the “enemy” (i.e., Middle Eastern/Turkic invaders of Bharat) for reasons of morale, etc.? “

    Here is what I read about regarding Sikhs and turbans: At the time, royalty wore turbans, and often carried the title Singh. Sikhs adopted this to combat hierarchy. Since the religion highly values equality (another example is eating together at the same level at a Gurudwara) they used these symbols to defy the hierarchy that existed. I don’t think it had anything to do with looking like the “enemy”.

  28. @27 Sharmishtha

    The basic purpose of a military is to fight wars. As you can see, battlefield injuries are part of that. Treating head and face wounds in extreme conditions on a battlefield is much harder on a person with lots of facial hair, a turban and a beard. Most surgical procedures requiring shaving the skin for disinfecting, suturing etc. The more hair to deal with, the more delay there is in rapid treatment . This is just the reality of battle. Yes, special forces operators have long hair and beards to blend in with the tribals they work with. But those are few, and for very specific reasons, not for general fighting troops. I fully believe these two Sikhs are good soldiers, but I think the practicality of them being in frontline combat is not much.

  29. @Kojak: agreed. But since Sikhs have been frontline troops for many hundreds of years (Ranjit Singh’s army, the British Indian Army, and now the Indian Army), I think the issue of injuries and battlefield performance have been dealt with already. The point is, does one want as many people as possible to serve their country through the military? If yes, then one has to come up with creative ways of enabling different groups of people to do so. For example, a recent innovation that has helped all Indian soldiers but was designed with Sikh soldiers in mind is the bullet-proof patka helmet. About the facial hair, etc., yes, that is the risk one takes when one holds on to certain aspects of religious tradition while serving in the army. But as long as it only endangers the individual concerned, it should be his call. Here is a link to an image of the patka helmet: http://farm1.static.flickr.com/118/272298139_0642d7137e_o.jpg . The point is that if there is a willingness to accommodate people’s desire to serve in the military, you can always find creative ways around maintaining a uniform military look and appearance as well as safeguards against injuries.

  30. @32 Sharmishtha

    The military has a long complicated process for acquiring anything. Everything is standardized and bid out to various vendors: weapons, vehicles, uniforms, protective gear, food rations etc. The whole process is built around uniformity and repeatability , so that replacing parts and equipment is easy on the battlefield. A custom fit helmet for a few soldiers with unusual requirements is very expensive and does not fit in the acquisition process. The Indian army has a sizeable number of Sikh soldiers so that makes it economically viable to make those helmets etc. I doubt a few Sikh soldiers in the US military are going to make the military change its process. And to say “But as long as it only endangers the individual concerned, it should be his call.” is not what the military is about. The individual is part of a team. If he is needlessly endangering himself, he endangers his team on a battlefield too. The whole philosophy of the military is too take an individual, and rebuild them physically and mentally to be part of a fighting team. Individualism in the military looks good for PR opportunities and Hollywood movies, but doesn’t work in reality.

  31. @Kojak: agree with you. I too do not think the US Army is ready for much diversity, as yet, except in the limited sense of providing a range of religious services. It does not seem to have recognized the fact that immigration patterns in the 1960s and 1970s have changed both the demography and the recruitment pool of the country. My response is : it’s the Army’s loss. Talented Sikhs will find an outlet in other spheres of life. I’m sure that when Italian Americans began serving in the Army in the early twentieth century, there was plenty of grumbling about the need to buy special rations of spaghetti and how expensive its going to be, etc. But eventually, the Army too will catch up with the new reality of the changed profile of the country and will change its policies, accordingly. But your other point, about endangering other team members, frankly, I have never heard any Indian army officer or soldier complain about this vis-a-vis a Sikh colleague, nor is there any widespread mention of this in the British chronicles (although, admittedly, I haven’t been looking for them). And as Sikhs have gone into combat thousands of times, any possible dangers should have been common knowledge by now.

  32. Sharmishtha, I hope you realize that the Patka helmet is a second best solution. It offers inferior ballistic protection compared to traditional helmets. The protection it does provides comes from two steel bands at the front and rear of the helmet. The top is completely unprotected.

  33. The so called patka helmet exceeds NIJ Level III standards of protection and works against not only 9 mm rounds but also 7.62 and 5.56 high speed rounds. It is better than the PAGST helmets

  34. meh, the rustic heartland folks will get over it. i think it’s great the indian dispora in the US is diversifying occupational choices and not just sticking to doctor and engineer.

  35. This would land us square in the midst of what academics claim these traditions are and what is actually lived out day to day. Let’s keep away from the discussion.

    You seem quite eager to slap any meaningful discussion down while offering mostly negativity and glib incoherence as a substitute. A little depth, please, or does that violate your civil rights?

  36. Jyotsana, I’m still confused about what from the historical record is not supposed to be said about Sikhs in the US/on this blog? Is hailing the bravery of the Sikhs against foreign aggression verboten in the States? The Sikh is the tip of the spear–that’s something to be very proud of where I grew up!

  37. Jyotsana there is a reason why everyone has abandoned steel helmets in favor of kevlar. Pound for pound, kevlar provides superior ballistic protection over steel. The patka helmets used in India concentrate protection by using two steel plate bands, a thicker one in the front and a thinner in the back. Pasgt style helmets provide all around protection for the entire head. The patka provides protection from rifle caliber fire only to the forehead. The rear plate provides similar protection to traditional kevlar helmets. However, due to weight limitations imposed by the use of steel (heavier than kevlar) and the design of the helmet itself to fit Sikh hair, there is no ballistic protection at all for the top of the head. The patka is essentially a narrow steel tube.

  38. The disgrace comment just shows America has 1) no history with India , unlike Uk , where it has always been acceptable, 2) The Osama Bin Laden and Taliban image is deeply ingrained..not surprised as Americans are hicks anyway.

    That said those that support him show a good sign for America as well as for Punjabi Sikhs

  39. Linzi, you are right about turban

    Kojak, most Sikhs are flexible enough. If the duty (DUTY) calls, they can cut hair.

    Sikhism is the most forward looking and flexible relgion.

  40. @Sharmishtha

    But your other point, about endangering other team members, frankly, I have never heard any Indian army officer or soldier complain about this vis-a-vis a Sikh colleague, nor is there any widespread mention of this in the British chronicles

    To clarify what I meant by endangering was that by using equipment that was less safe or protective than what the rest of the troops use as standard issue, a Sikh soldier could land up getting badly wounded or worse, requiring the other soldiers to devote resources on the battlefield to extract him, while possibly putting themselves in danger too. The “patka” helmet does not conform to the standard design used by US troops. Modifications to attach night vision gear and other electronic equipment would also be needed. As I said, the US military works on standardization of equipment. And the same applies to the soldiers. Which is why you have minimum/maximum height, weight, eyesight and fitness requirements imposed on anyone wanting to join. Would you say that someone rejected on those grounds was being unfairly “discriminated” against ? No, and neither would in my opinion somebody being rejected for not conforming to the US military standards on appearance. And what may be acceptable in the Indian army is not acceptable here and the same applies the other way around too. I see no issue with that.

  41. Jing,

    The patka helmet is made of kevlar and uses a steel mesh as well and provides top coverage also. In the Indian Army it is used by Sikhs in all operations and by non-Sikhs as well in counter insurgency. It is battle tested and the troops prefer it to the PASGT for the patka’s superior perpheral vision. And as I said its ballistic characteristics are much better than the PASGT.

    Shilpa, This is nothing about Sikhs in America. It is about the interaction of the Hindu and Sikh traditions over the last three centuries. The academic version of this relationship almost the world over, is very different from the way the traditions have actually been lived out. I would like to leave it at that.

  42. There is a more profound reason why some Hindus in Punjab have as a matter of custom raised a son in every generation as a Sikh. It tells you a lot about the sentiments of both Sikhs and Hindus towards each other and their own traditions.

    I like how some casteist hindus fall over each other in their eagerness to show their love and respect for sikhs. I think it is motivated more out of fear of sikhs than any real sense of community. After all, sikhism rejects the casteism, idol worship and polytheism of brahminism. Sikhs have more in common with sufis than with hindus.

  43. In principle it does.In brahminism casteism is integral and fundamental, in sikhism it is rejected. Maybe all these hindus who make one of their sons join sikhism are responsible for the corruption of sikhism’s anti-caste roots?

  44. @Kojak 43: But this is not really about standardization of equipment, is it? It’s not as if the Indian Army goes into battle with an assortment of tin-hats, cloth caps, etc. Nor is it about violation of minimum standards. Everybody who joins the Indian Army has to meet a certain minimum height, weight, etc. It really is about recognizing the changed recruitment pool of the country. The difference is that the Indian Army is already geared for dealing with a variety of ethnic groups joining the armed forces(for example, the height requirements for Gurkhas is slightly different than it is for Sikhs, i.e. taking the “best” of whichever ethnic group). Now, I’m not suggesting that the US Army has to change itself into any other army. However, if there are Sikhs wanting to join the US Army in present times, that means that there is a generation of Sikhs that has grown up here that wants to serve its country in the army. It is probably time for the military powers-that-be to reexamine their own assumptions about the military’s “appearance” and be slightly ahead of the curve in terms of setting minimum codes for the future.

    I don’t doubt that this will happen. After all, the induction of Jewish chaplains into the army after the Civil War probably caused much clucking and fussing about changing the army’s culture, but it’s all alright now, isn’t it? And those Stars of David amidst the white crosses in the American cemetery at Omaha Beach are not an eyesore. All of them are the same height as, and painted the same regulation white as the crosses of their Christian comrades, and they add to, not subtract from, the beauty and grandeur of the place. I think the same thing will happen with the new groups now making the United States their home. The Army will find a way to fit them in. It has to, otherwise it will become just a praetorian guard of Kansans, Texans and Oklahamans.

    As for the endangerment issues, again, Sikhs have gone into combat so many thousands of times over the last three hundred years, in both World Wars, and in regional conflicts, that it would be a worthwhile exercise for someone in the army to research if any Sikh battlefield casualties have ever been a drag on their unit or their team. Should be fairly easily done too by any professional with access to the professional literature of the field.

  45. @48· Sharmishtha

    I think you are missing my point about my reservations about Sikhs being part of frontline combat troops in the US military. It is not about their religion, or their bravery or any such random thing. It is strictly a practical issue. As a non-religious example, some troops in Iraq were using non-standard military issue Under Armour clothing which is very popular among athletes because of its superior moisture and sweat wicking abilities. It makes wearing the armor and gear in the hot Iraq battlefields much more bearable as you can guess. However it contains synthetic fibers that melt and adhere to the skin if the soldier were to have his clothes catch fire as happens during IED blasts. So despite some of its advantages, it has a very serious downside. It has been banned because of this. Once again, there is a reason the military uses standardized gear.

    The military has loosened up its appearance code about things like tattoos, though restrictions are placed on facial tattoos and indecent/sexist and ones. Tattoos do not impede the use of standard military equipment. A beard and turban does. A Jewish skull cap is form fitting and does not impede wearing a standard military helmet. Once again this is not about singling out Sikhs because of their religion. Should Rastafarians be allowed to keep their dreadlocks in the military , because of what their religion says about hair? Should Sikhs also be allowed to wear their kirpan dagger on their military uniform ? If one is making an exception for Sikhs, then the rule must be uniform for all such religious exceptions and hair and beards. One cannot expect special treatment just for one group.

  46. I like how some casteist hindus fall over each other in their eagerness to show their love and respect for sikhs. I think it is motivated more out of fear of sikhs than any real sense of community. After all, sikhism rejects the casteism, idol worship and polytheism of brahminism. Sikhs have more in common with sufis than with hindus.

    Balbir, I think that you are a good example of what Jyotsana is talking about. You have been taught certain things (I suspect as a member of the diaspora), and are ignoring inconvenient facts that don’t fit into that narrative (but that are bloody obvious on the ground in Bharat). For example, during Partition, the Sufis headed west, and the Sikhs headed east to be with the Hindus. Why is that?