Facial Hair, Patriotism and the Enemy in American History

By Juan Cole

Media Matters for America put together a collage of Fox Cable News commentators smearing the father of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl as having a Taliban-like beard and maybe even being a Taliban sympathizer. Thanks to MM4A for the Laura Ingram clip in which she says that if he weren’t so light-skinned he could be a terrorist. You always knew that American racists, frustrated by the Civil Rights movement and unable so easily to use racial slurs in public, had adopted ‘terrorist’ as a dog whistle. But to have it so explicitly stated!

Media Matters for America: “Fox’s Feelings on Beards: It Depends”

The Fox love for the “Duck Dynasty” in contrast to the Bergdahl beard was first pointed out by the wittiest man in America, Jon Stewart, on The Daily Show.

Jon’s observation and the MM4A medley of clips got me thinking about beards in American history as self and other. Jon Michaud links the early American preference for being clean shaven to the Puritan tradition and points out that the Founding Fathers did not sport beards.

Abraham Lincoln grew his beard in office, and it seems likely to me that the beard was a symbol of the Civil War’s hardships and dislocations. Many generals sported them at that time. Very large numbers of men on a battlefield after all would have found it easier not to bother with shaving. The beard was big in the late nineteenth century, then declined.

It came back in the 1960s. In part, it was probably an anti-war symbol, being hirsute as the opposite of being shorn of most visible hair and sent to Vietnam. It was also a poke in the eye of the Establishment, of Madison Avenue and Wall Street.

By the way, there have been similar fads for and against beards in Muslim history. In the early modern period, the Ottoman sultans did not have beards, and most Indian Muslims did not. The contemporary fundamentalist preference for the beard is based on an imaginary image of Islamic history or some obscure saying, but not representative of historical practice.

So here are good mustaches and beards and bad mustaches and beards as imagined in American popular culture and war propaganda, as a way of contextualizing today’s hero-worship of the backwoods conservatives of Duck Dynasty and villainization of the backwoods conservatives of the Taliban.

Good beard, no mustache:


Bad mustache, no beard:


Kaiser Wilhelm II, America’s enemy during WW I

Good beard:


Frederick Douglass, abolitionist

Bad beard:


Confederate, secessionist Gen. Robert E. Lee

Good beard:


Maj. Gen. Alpheus William, civil war officer for the North

Bad beard:


Vladimir Lenin, Soviet Leader

Good mustache:


Teddy Roosevelt

Bad mustache:

AlfonsoXIII de Borbon

Alfonso XIII, King of Spain during Spanish-American War

Good mustache:


Triple Ace Col. Robin Olds, figher pilot in WW II

Bad mustache:


Hideki Tojo, Japanese leader during WW II

Good beard:


Clint Eastwood

Bad beard:


Ho Chi Minh

Good beard:


Willie Nelson

Bad beard:


Ayatollah Khomeini

In every instance of the “bad mustache” or “bad beard,” there were a lot of caricatures and deployment of racist, demeaning images for propaganda purposes. You wonder if during the bearded periods of American history the beardless were seen as not manly or as resembling beardless enemies, and vice versa. Of course, the whole subject has to do with images of masculinity and of self and other in a patriarchal society. It is a gendered debate.

21 Responses

  1. Robin! of “Blackman and Robin.”

    I once bumped into a graduate student at a local public library. We happened into each other at the military history and science book aisle. He said he was researching the African-American experience during the Vietnam war (he wasn’t African-American ).

    I informed him of the exploits and camaraderie of USAF Col. Olds and Col. (at the time) Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. , who later attained the rank of full general.

    He said it didn’t fit in with the paper he was writing. Can you imagine, Juan? If memory serves me correctly, he was a Stanford student.

    • Well, maybe he was writing about the infantry. Or the way that black infantrymen were having a disproportionately high # of casualties early in the war, so many of them were shifted to jobs like graves registration to avoid stoking racial tensions at home. Or the hushed-up racial confrontation that happened in Okinawa when I was a little boy there, centering on black Marines holed up in a red-light district off-base, leading to military policemen assaulting the neighborhood. That was a typical experience for a lot more GIs than being a fighter ace, and it had real effects on military policy after Vietnam.

  2. Professor Cole, lol, you are definitely on a roll here with this post. You remind me of George Carlin doing a routine on our foreign policy.. And you even included Uncle Ho in your hall of hirsute fame. Very funny. You’re obviously an intellectual but you have a great sense of humor. Have you ever considered getting a side gig doing stand-up comedy?

  3. Welcome back to America, Bowe, where the wolves of Fox Street are already tearing your entire family apart! They had the audacity to question American exceptionalism (greatest country on earth!) and the sense to try to reach out across the cultural abyss to the other side, not with bombs and bullets, but with books and open hearts and minds, and listening… Listening is not the way to victory! It is the way to Peace! Pat Tillman started listening… and look what we did to him. Lesson for us all. What ? You were a prisoner of the Taliban for 5 years and not once did they torture you ? Don’t those fools have a CIA? Welcome back. If you can fit yourself back into the box of American cliches (greatest country on earth!) you will be fine. What size straitjacket do you wear ?

  4. It’s unfortunate that here in America we have such a warped view of freedom of speech unlike in many other counters where such blatant demagoguery would be subject to censure, fine and possible civil lawsuits. I seem to recall reading the day after Bergdahl was released that his father grew his beard in support of his son (vowing not to shave until he was released) and learned Pashtun (which, by the way, is not the language of the Taliban but spoken by all Pashtun people) in order to be able to communicate with folks involved in negotiating for his son’s release. That Fox can twist what were demonstrations of love and support for a son into terrorist sympathies is really bend the pale.

    • According to Fox News, anyone who can speak a language other than English is suspect and undoubtedly anti-American. (Ignoring the fact that the second-largest holder of News Corp. stock is a Saudi prince.) I remember the sneering remarks made in 2004 about John Kerry being able to speak French. Those at Fox must believe that if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it should be good enough for the entire world.

      • Love your “if English was good enough for Jesus Christ” remark. Wish I’d thought of it

  5. In Greco-Roman culture, body hair was an imperfection. One of the few Greco-Roman statues that displayed body hair was the “Dying Gaul” or “Dying Trumpeter.” Body hair was for the imperfect barbarian, not the perfect Greek or Roman. Granted, some Greeks and Romans did have beards, but they were the exception.

    • That all depends on which era you are talking about. Through the 4th century, beards were certainly de rigeur for all Greek men. There was even a standard phrase “beardless youth” to refer to a young man who hadn’t yet grown his beard (or to Apollo). Lacking facial hair was more of a Roman trait than a Greek one. And when Rome conquered Greece and became somewhat Hellenized, beards came into fashion for those who wanted to present themselves as sophisticated and Greek, just as remaining clean-shaven communicated to others that you rejected Greek cultural influence. Of course, after being conquered by Rome, any Greeks who wanted to have influence in Rome would have made sure they were clean shaven and spoke Latin. But the Greeks were definitely a bearded people, by and large.

  6. In the movie “Gettysburg,” those long fake beards the southerners wore weren’t much different from the average Taliban “terrorist” or papa Bergdahl’s. If the beard is long and looks bad, there’s usually a bad guy with evil intent underneath. When he returns to the HOMELAND, if Sgt. Bergdahl also grows a beard, the Republicans will say….

    “See, we told ya.”

    Is there even ONE Republican in Congress sporting a beard, ‘stache or any other facial hair such as long sideburns.

    I can’t think of any.

    • Speaking of good and bad beards: I think the fellas from that wildly-popular-with-“conservative patriot” TeeVee show, “Duck Dynasty,” are all Registered ToiletPaper Reepublicans… as are the dudes on several “reality” shows that feature customizing and rebuilding those most American of machines, Harley Davidsons, and Monster Trucks, and Muscle Cars…

      • Obama is taking some real heat from the Republicans over Sgt. Bergdahl’s release, so the timing could not be better for him to grow a beard and show solidarity with Bergdahl Sr. Then, instead of God Bless America at the end of every speech, Obama could close by saying….”GOD IS GREAT,” and see how long before FOX News picked it up.

    • I’ve read that beards became popular in the 19th century for religious reasons, because it was how Americans imagined Old Testament prophets must have looked. On the other hand moustaches came to symbolize the military, with many officers having a moustache and no beard. Then there were religious, pacifist minorities like the Amish, who wanted to affirm their religiosity while rejecting anything militaristic, and that is why they grew beards with no moustaches.

  7. Roman Emperors: Augustus to Trajan, 27BC to 117 AD – no beard. Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius – through second centuru AD, bearded. Third and fourth centuries – beardless.- Dilcetian, Constantine and others.

  8. Interesting to hear Ingram come right out and admit that her definition of “terrorist” is based upon a persons race (and religion) rather than that persons actions. It was always pretty obvious with her and the Fox News types but to have her say it outright is, as you noted, pretty remarkable.

  9. I wonder how she classifies Timothy McVeigh? Disgruntled patriot maybe? American Freedom Fighter?

  10. I like the beard, but it does seem he deserted and may have converted, though his captors seem to have treated him with the abusive contempt reserved for prisoners the world over.

    • People often convert in captivity, as an extension of Stockholm syndrome. Look up John McCain. There is no shame in being weak in the face of powerful captors.

  11. Maybe facial hair does not mean so much after all. Perhaps it’s just…

    “I don’t feel like shaving.”
    “This mustache makes me look suave.”
    “My beard makes me appear learned.”
    “The sideburns are all the rage!”

    Okay, so what are the women doing to express their beliefs, today and through history?

  12. It was fascinating to me that Fox News commentators seized on the father’s beard, because it looked Mennonite to me. If you are from a certain part of rural America, there lots of bearded Amish and Mennonite men to be seen. This just tells me that the Fox writers (in New York) don’t get out as much as everyday Americans.

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