Do commandos go commando?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 10 2005 6:36 PM

Do Commandos Go Commando?

Soldiers and their skivvies.

According to a recent report in Newsweek, the Pentagon may send special forces teams to the Middle East to train, advise, and support handpicked Iraqi soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques. If the United States pursues this plan, our commandos will presumably advise the Iraqis about the finer points of stealth warfare—including what to wear. Which raises one question: Do our commandos really go commando?

Many commandos do forgo underpants when they suit up in the field, but the practice is by no means limited to the special forces. With limited rucksack space and infrequent opportunities to wash up or change clothes, American troops sometimes decide that clean underwear is more trouble than it's worth. In addition, going without can increase ventilation and reduce moisture in a soldier's battle dress uniform, which in turn can minimize his chances of getting a rash or crotch rot, a fungal infection of the groin. (Whether or not they wear underpants, many soldiers use Gold Bond Medicated Powder to prevent these ailments.)

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Advertisement

There's no ban on underwear from Central Command, of course, but a number of advisories on military safety do offer tips that could be construed to support the practice. Web sites for the armed forces' safety programs warn that tight-fitting uniforms reduce cooling air flow around the body, and the Manual of Naval Preventive Medicine suggests that heat injury can be avoided by wearing the "least allowable amount of clothing." In addition, pilots and armored vehicle personnel are told during training never to wear underpants made from synthetic fibers. The U.S. Army Safety Center explains that the flame-retardant Nomex suits these combatants use can still transmit enough heat to melt any briefs that aren't 100 percent cotton.

Some soldiers speculate that men in the armed forces are more likely than women to go without skivvies. In the Army, for example, the battle dress uniform contains an awkward crotch seam that can be particularly uncomfortable for women. Brassieres are a different story: For women with smaller breasts, it can be much more comfortable not to wear one in hot weather. But while a man who wears no underwear isn't immediately noticeable, a woman without a bra can draw unwanted attention in the field.

When did the term "going commando" enter the civilian lexicon? The phrase dates back to at least the middle of the 20th century, when Americans used it to mean "toughening up." (That meaning persists to this day in some contexts.) The phrase's more common connotation dates back to at least 1974, when it appeared in a source on college slang. The phrase "crotch rot" emerged during the same period: It first appeared in 1967. It's possible that "going commando" first poked its way into the public consciousness during the Vietnam War, when American special forces were spending extended periods in hot, wet jungle environments. The phrase got its big break in 1996, when Joey and Rachel went commando on an episode of Friends.

Explainer thanks David Chasteen of Operation Truth, Capts. Ray and Mindy Kimball of the U.S. Army, Grant Barrett of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, and Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

The First Case of Ebola in America Has Been Diagnosed in Dallas

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Mad About Modi


Why the controversial Indian prime minister drew 19,000 cheering fans to Madison Square Garden.


Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Don’t Panic! The U.S. Already Stops Ebola and Similar Diseases From Spreading. Here’s How.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 6:44 PM Ebola Was Already Here How the United States contains deadly hemorrhagic fevers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.