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RIP Digital Camo: Obituary for a Very Controversial Uniform

Last month, an alert went out to all U.S. Army Soldiers giving them notice that their uniforms — their Army Combat Uniforms — have an expiration date.

The ACU is what you’ve all come to know and love from Army Strong commericals and ubiquitous Facebook ads for masters degrees in counterterrorism.

It has been the icon of the Army for a decade; it introduced a radical clothing pattern to millions of Americans; it represented the military in Hollywood and popular culture during an era in which support for the military reached unprecedented levels; it was emblematic of a force transitioning to a more modern, lethal one.

And most Soldiers couldn’t be happier to see it go.

Soldiers in digital ACUs from the 49th Military Police Brigade (Spc. Wesley Adams, left, Spc. Rommel Vazquez, right, and Staff Sgt. Keith George, hidden) greet Iraqi police officers. The Soldiers are members of the 49th’s Personnel Security Detail who played a key role for the California brigade during Iraq’s national election March 7, 2010. (US Army photo/SPC Eddie Siguenza)

This is the life story of the ACU, and its obituary.

By way of definitions, the “ACU” will actually stay, though with a different pattern. The current pattern is technically called, “Universal Camouflage Pattern”(UCP). It’s replacement, which some Soldiers have already begun to wear, is the “Operational Camouflage Patterned” (OCP).

The OCP-ACU has become well known for its use in Afghanistan since around mid-2010, but those ACUs were only to be worn in that particular theater. So when Soldiers refer to ACUs, they likely mean the UCP, or “digital camo.”

The ACU was officially announced service-wide on the Army’s birthday, June 14, in 2004. Worn in garrison stateside until the present and in the Afghanistan until a few years ago, it is nevertheless the unmistakeble uniform of the Iraq War. Most of the 800,000 Soldiers who served in Iraqi Freedom or New Dawn wore it. Thousands bled in it. Too many died in it.

But remembering those images of the invasion and early occupation phases, it was the tan desert Battle Dress Uniform that represented the U.S. ground force.

Soldiers donned in Desert Combat Uniforms from Troop C, 2nd Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team) and Company F, 425th Infantry search a home in Tal Afar, Iraq. The Soldiers are searching homes in areas of increased violence in hopes of finding those responsible for recent attacks on Multinational and Iraqi forces. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Blair Larson)

Senior military leaders recognized that Soldiers weren’t fighting in the desert, though, and they wanted a more multi-purpose uniform. By 2004, thousands of troops were serving in the cities and deserts of Mesopotamia, as well as the mountains of Afghanistan.

“The goal was not to change the look of the Army,” said Lt. Col. Dave Anderson, who headed Product Manager Soldier Clothing and Individual Equipment at PEO Soldier, the Army agency charged with outfitting the force. “The goal was to find a more functional uniform.”

Change the look of the Army, it did, however. By late 2006 all U.S. Army troops had ACUs, and the old BDUs were never to be seen in combat again. The ACU, and its “digitized” UCP, had become the distinctive symbol of the United States Army.

Genealogy of the Army Combat Uniform

Military planners had foreseen combat in urban centers before 9/11, but with Iraqi Freedom, a uniform that could perform in a variety of terrains took on an unmatched urgency. The Army settled on a camouflage pattern that had roots in research done at West Point in the 1970s; one that contrasted mightily with the patterns that represented U.S. Army uniforms during the entire 20th century.

Some scholars have argued that, while military clothing has had some utilitarian value from a tactical standpoint, uniforms since the Industrial Revolution have largely been devised to communicate more than to work.

That began to change in World War I, when aerial surveillance in alerted military leaders to the need for camouflage; at that time there were plenty of artists who were ready to supply the needed theories and designs. Clothing was colored to blend, but patterns did not emerge until much later.

During the Second World War, the Allies began in earnest to produce uniforms that would be functional in any part of the world. The U.S. developed the recognizable woodland camouflage pattern that incorporated interlocking globule-shaped spots of green, brown, tan, and black.

The green “fatigues,” adopted in 1954, were designed to “achieve a distinctive appearance for U.S. Army personnel and an identity as an attractively uniformed Armed Service.” American involvement in Indochina was accompanied by slight iterations in the fatigues, and the Army even used the woodland camouflage, appropriate for jungle operations, that had first been developed in 1948.

The conclusion of American intervention in Southeast Asia ushered in a new era for the Army. The move to an All-Volunteer Force (AVF) and subsequent repositioning to a tenuous peace during the Cold War brought opportunities for the Army to rebrand itself. The adoption of the woodland camouflage pattern in 1981 became symbolic of the Army’s post-Vietnam posture as “ready armored defender of central Europe.”

During Operation Desert Storm, action in Somalia in 1993, the NATO operations in the Balkans, and the early years of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the woodland camouflage BDU (and its sister the Desert Combat Uniform) represented the Army and its actions, speaking sartorially for it to a domestic public.

The advent of the War on Terror sent American Soldiers in large numbers to Afghanistan, and then to Iraq.

New tactical environments were far from the only shifts occurring in the military. In 2004, the same year the Army began field testing the new uniform in combat, Chief of Staff Gen. Erik Shinseki made clear that it was “in the midst of a profound transformation.” That transformation manifest itself in garments it issued to its Soldiers that very year.

Dual Textured Camo

In 1977 an instructor at West Point had begun testing his own camouflage designs. The founder of the U.S. Military Academy’s engineering-psychology program, then-Maj. Timothy O’Neill, painted an armored personnel carrier with two-inch squares to test his ideas of color blending and concealment.

His team called the result “dual-tex,” for dual texture. It was based upon the U.S. Cold War strategy of Active Defense, which required “combined arms team to allow for a combination of firepower and movement where firepower was used to allow the defender to move into a position from which more firepower could be used to destroy the attacker’s forces.” Thus, victory depended more than ever on the ability to hide and move.

O’Neill thought that “intra-pattern value differentiation” was the key to hiding large equipment on the move. Basically, he created a smaller pattern within the larger shapes in the macro-pattern. “I needed to have a texture that matched natural backgrounds for a variety of reasons, so we dragged a dead M113 armored personnel carrier out into the middle of a field… and painted it by hand,” using a two-inch roller.

The result was a pattern radically different from the monochrome fatigues or the woodland camouflage used at the time. Small, randomized squares created a “micropattern” that blended in with the background at close range. The micropattern within the macropattern resulted in a dual-textured design.

Some equipment in the European Command was patterned with dual-tex, but it largely disappeared from the military for twenty years, until it was revived at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center in Massachusetts. Natick, responsible for outfitting soldiers with the best combat equipment, took up the task of designing the new uniform based on O’Niell’s work.

“The pattern is not a 100-percent solution in every environment, but a good solution across the board,” said Sgt. First Class Jeff Myhre, a noncommissioned officer affiliated with Natick at the tme of the ACU development.

Digital Warriors

The most striking feature of the new Army uniform, and the visual element that created the most meaning, was the pixilated appearance of the universal camouflage pattern. In (at the time) classified reports, researchers mentioned that dual-tex patterns looked so different from fatigues or woodland patterns that developers described the computer-generated pattern as “impressionist.”

Strictly speaking, digital camouflage is any pattern created by a computer, which dual-tex was. But in the computer age, the UCP adopted by Natick became synonymous with the trappings of network-centric warfare and a digital force (real or imagined).

The Army encouraged this view. Shinseki’s successor, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, described in the Army’s 2004 Posture Statement a “strategically responsive, networked, precision capabilities-based maneuver force that is dominant across the range of military operations envisioned for the future.”

One important aspect of the digitization theme is dominance, reinforced by the Army’s public messages. In its 2005 Posture Statement, whose publically-released print version incorporated the digital design, Army leadership presented the Future Force. Like the 2004 statement, the need for forward thinking was aimed at battlefield dominance. Increasingly, the Army would associate itself with power and technology. By the next year, it would abandon the Army of One slogan in favor of “Army Strong.” The ACU and digital camouflage were its emblem.

A Warrior’s Uniform

While the Army Combat Uniform was visually radical, it also represented more traditional aspects of war craft that the Army carefully cultivated. The highest ranking enlisted soldier in the Army at the time of the ACU’s introduction, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston said, “The ACU is a warrior’s uniform; it’s a uniform designed by Soldiers.”

The emphasis on “warrior,” another word beginning to come into fashion within the military, represented the reality that Soldiers would fight wearing the ACU. This is the source of the ACU’s most powerful rhetoric, as men and women who wore them were fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the American public was reminded of that fact every day for almost a decade.

The Warrior Ethos program, began by Shinseki in 2003, stressed an Army that embodied values adopted as part of training and doctrine in the late 1990s. The Soldier’s Creed was a more recent phenomenon, having been created and adopted during the War on Terror. All soldiers memorized and recited the Soldier’s Creed:

I am an American Soldier. I am a warrior and a member of a team. I serve the People of the United States, and live the Army Values. I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade. I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills. I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself. I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy, the enemies of the United States of American in close combat. I am a Guardian of Freedom and the American Way of Life. I am an American Soldier.

Drill Sgt. Angela Lee, of the 98th Training Division, instructs recruits undergoing Basic Combat Training on reacting to a chemical attack during a round-robin training session held March 14 at Fort Jackson, S.C.

During periods of reformation for any institution, there is the need to balance the new with a sense of stability and tradition. So even while Shinseki was lobbying for change, he reaffirmed the Army’s “nonnegotiable contract with the American public” and insisted that transformation was necessary in order for the Army to continue “defending the Constitution.”

The new pattern inherited much of the rhetorical power of its progenitors, while constructing new messages that earlier versions couldn’t have communicated. It was also advertised as highly functional. In fact, leaders often cited its tactical utility as the main reason for its adoption. The message was that the ACU was useful, and would help the United States win in ground combat. It represented the Army’s attention to what soldiers in the field needed and wanted to “fight and win the Nation’s wars.”

Forward Deployed and Working Hard

Of course, many Soldiers reported complaints. Here, utility and image intersected even in criticism of the uniform. The ACU famously banished polish and starch, totally irrelevant artifacts of an earlier era. Yet Soldiers pointed out that the new ACU stained too easily. Another early complaint was that it wasn’t durable.

Indeed, the ACUs that Americans saw on television were often dirty, as images came back from Iraq and Afghanistan. But they reinforced the values that the Army clearly wanted to associate with their uniformed soldiers — one of which, aside from teamwork, was hard work and service to the public despite austere conditions. A Soldier could be forgiven dust on her boots or a spot on her trousers if she was an ocean away serving her country.

Over time, modifications were made to make the pants more sturdy, and buttons replaced velcro on pants pockets. But by and large, the ACU remained as it was in 2004.

A Paratrooper from Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment (Airborne), pulls security during a patrol near Forward Operating Base Keating in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan March 1, 2008.

The biggest criticism by far, though, was that the ACU didn’t perform its main function: to conceal. Despite the evidence supplied by O’Neill and his West Point researchers, many Soldiers remained unconvinced that ACUs could provide camouflage in either of the two main combat areas, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Army leaders seemed to have got the message, at least as far as Afghanistan was concerned. Units deploying to Afghanistan were issued the OCP — called “multi-cam” at the time —begining in 2010. Preston said the new uniforms would allow “Soldiers to get far closer to the enemy before being observed.”

Paradoxically, OCP harkened to an earlier era, going “retro” at a time when the Army’s claim to technological superiority began to lose its luster. The Afghan insurgency seemed to be gaining a second wind, and counterinsurgency doctrine itself was under fire. High-tech weaponry like drones were raising the enemy body count to seemingly little avail, and for all the communication and surveillance advances the U.S. military had made, the Taliban was giving American Soldiers a run for their money, according to the Army’s harshest critics.

In Iraq, the drawdown of troops meant the ACU’s combat finale, while Afghanistan bound Soldiers wore the updated pattern.

UCP Goes Pop

Military style has historically permeated civilian fashion, both in mimicry of the martial and in rebellion against it. The Army uniform of the past decade represented more conformist motivations, legitimizing the rhetoric that the Army instilled in it. It accentuated traditional military values, while at the same time infusing it with the values of youth. Its success in doing so is reflected in the way the digital camouflage has found its way into popular culture.

The camouflaged patterns used by the U.S. military since the advent of the War on Terror represented a more modern way of thinking about the military for the broader culture. The Army used the rhetoric of the computer age to brand itself, and the visual rhetoric of the UCP was the perfect complement. (the Marine Corps used a digitized camouflage since 2002, while the Air Force and Navy adopted ditigal camo after the Army).

Components of the rhetorical package included ethics of the digital society such as youth, energy, and creativity on one hand, and ironically, individualism, resistance and anonymity on the other.

As Gen. Shinseki had gazed toward the future in the early 2000s, he no doubt saw a youthful force. New and potential soldiers embody the energy and creativity that a future, powerful, and high-tech army would require.

But if anything spoke to the reinterpretation of the rhetorical uniform since 2001, it was the phenomenon of its incorporation into athletic uniforms.

The University of Utah, in 2010, was one of the first major schools whose football team donned uniforms infused with the digital camouflage patterns. Explained Salt Lake City’s Deseret News, “The jerseys…have core values like “honor,” “integrity,” “country,” “service,” and “duty” lie on back instead of last names.”

To the athletic clothing manufacturer Under Armour, local soldiers, and university athletic officials, then, the rhetoric of the ACU was entirely positive, and the team, local soldiers, and the university were all proud to be able to wear them in support of a charity that helped wounded vets. The paper’s readership received them positively, judging by the comments on the Deseret News website. All reader comments that mentionined the uniforms framed them positively. One reader wrote, ‘There really are things bigger than sports, and this proves it.”

Several university football teams that year debuted uniforms influenced by the UCP, including Maryland, Georgia Tech, and Texas A&M. The service academies had begun the trend in 2009, when Army and Navy “[broke] ranks from the traditional, unadorned look for a set of new ‘Enforcer’ unis.” The user comments here, too, were overwhelmingly in favor of the style, impressed by the rhetorical power of the digital camouflage pattern in the helmets and the pants.

In the case of athletic uniforms, corporations seem to recognize and appropriate the rhetorical power of digital camouflage. Such manifestations were probably the best indicator of how well the military’s message had permeated the culture.

Even the best marketing campaigns have a shelf life, and UCP’s was about ten years.

The new OCP has already begun appearing around garrisons, though the old UCP is authorized until 2019. Undoubtedly, Soldiers will rush to get the new uniforms, partly due to the novelty, but mostly due to the disdain for the UCP.

It is somewhat surprising that Army personnel have such antipathy for the uniform that continues to symbolize their service to much of the public. Contrasted against the BDU, the digital camo was more distincively associated with the Army. The ACU’s predecessor was a generic looking camouflage that could have — and was — produced by a number of countries’ armies.

The ACU was a part of the Army brand itself.

Most Soldiers currently in the Army never wore the BDU, yet many still prefer it to the UCP-ACU. A surprsing number of Soldiers also have very pronounced greivances with the UCP-ACU: the Velcro makes too much noise, it looks sloppy, and most of all, it doesn’t conceal well in most terrain.

The sloppiness critique might be an indication of generational differences, but on utilitarian grounds doesn’t make much sense. Black leather boots may have looked better, but time spent polishing them was time not spent studying up on tactics or cleaning a weapon. Moreover, what looks good and what doesn’t is totally arbitrary.

The concealment critique is easier to understand, though still not very rational. In the scheme of winning a war, the ability of any given Soldier to hide in a particular well terrain has relatively little to do with it. Of all the variables a commander would consider in his or her assessment of an engagement with the enemy, ability to conceal would rank very low. And to the extent that it does, it depends entirely on the characteristics of the particular terrain. The OCP might work very well in mountainous desert, but poorly in urban areas.

More likely, Army personnel have been uneasy with its emerging identity as the Future Force of Shinseki’s dreams. When their battle buddies went home in caskets from Iraq and Afghanistan in increasing numbers, maybe they thought, who needs this digital warfare stuff anyway? It wouldn’t be the first time the military took criticism for its attempts to move into the future before it could fend off the present. In the 1980s, Army reformists Gary Hart and Williams Lind wrote about high-tech equipment that,

The best thing a combat unit could do with most of it is to kick it off the back of the truck when they move out to fight.

All said, it is this Soldier’s opinion that the Army, its personnel, and the American public were well served by the digital camo ACU. It presented the Army as a trustworthy institution during a period of intense dissatisfaction with many other social and political intitutions. Even as support for the Iraq War declined after 2006, support for the Army remained relatively steady and high. Maybe the ACU was just another thing to cast off in the long reassessment of the Iraq War.

But Preston had it right. It is a warrior’s uniform. And it will be missed.

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