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.)
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.