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

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.