We need to talk about the hats, bumper stickers, tattoos, and t-shirts. I once came across an email from a Sergeant Major in an elite counter-terrorism unit to his guys. It started: “We have become the people we always made fun of…” It was about a trend he was seeing toward ridiculous clothing and grooming choices beyond the scope of mission requirements.

In the law enforcement, military, and civilian defense communities, we have both internal and external drives to be able to deliver controlled violence on demand. We also tend to feel a strong sense of identity and camaraderie within those communities. Further, many people—particularly people like us, tend to feel the need to project an image that we are capable of delivering violence. I don’t have the space to deep dive the psychology of that—but you have probably noticed it too. There is nothing inherently wrong with projecting that image, as long as you are self-aware about it and realize that it comes with costs and risks. There are two key risks:

  1. You might look more like a dweeb than you realize.
  2. You give an adversary time to figure out what to do about you before you realize you have an adversary to deal with.

The velcro hat, the cargo pants, the spartan helmet or punisher on your forearm, the bumper sticker about God blessing our troops and especially our snipers, the sheepdog howling at the thin blue line, even that watch—they are signals, and you are communicating a message with them. 

Is it the message you intend? Who is your intended audience? One of the problems with a signal like that is that you can’t turn it off. It’s a little like leaving a flashlight turned on in your pocket. And to be clear: I understand the meaning of those symbols and recognize they might be very meaningful to you—but at some point, they become trite and diluted.

Consider that the people who tend to do the most signaling tend to be the least capable of delivering on that violence. Perhaps there is a more subtle and effective way to posture? You have probably heard the expression: “Be polite, be professional, have a plan to kill everyone you meet,” attributed to Secretary Mattis, and it sounds cool, but if you think about it, the first two enable the third. The most dangerous people I have worked with tend to be pretty quiet about it. They exude lethal capability through competence. It is time to bring back the lost art of the quiet professional. It is time to let your fitness, professionalism, and calm demeanor say more to the public and to potential predators than your t-shirt.



Jim has a background in military aviation, specializing in combat rescue and close air support.  His opinions are his alone and do not reflect the policy or position of the Air Force or Department of Defense, and no references here should be interpreted as an endorsement of any product or service by any government agency.



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