Monday, July 16, 2012
The (pixelated) Things They Carried
This article appeared in The Guardian on 13 July 2012.
It is ironic that something that is supposed to keep one from being seen is so instantly recognizable and can be the subject of so much debate.
US Army camouflage uniforms are iconic and instant reminders of our history. There is the khaki and green of WWII; the olive drab of Korea and Vietnam; the woodland color of the Cold War and Balkans; the 'chocolate chip' pattern of the Gulf War; the desert pattern of Afghanistan and Iraq; and the grey pixel pattern of today. One knows instantly what war and what decades they're looking at. Soldiers young and old form lifelong attachments to the uniforms they served in.
After $5bn worth of testing and fielding and eight years of discussion and complaints from leaders in the field, the Army has decided to nix the pixels in the coming years in favor of a uniform similar to that currently worn in Afghanistan. As a veteran of combat in Iraq, I welcome the move. But one question that must be asked is if all this costly concern about camouflage really continues to be as relevant in modern combat.
The official nomenclature for the current color is "foliage". Supposedly it was chosen in an attempt to find an all-purpose uniform for any terrain. Though predominantly grey in appearance, when viewed in a woodline at a distance the colors take on a hue of green combined with the shadows in vegetation. The grey and khaki colors also compare with shades of grey and brown in urban terrain. The khaki color also melds with brown rock or sand. Both colors compare with the skyline when silhouetted against the horizon.
The palette was motivated by the historic military tactic that attacks take place in the early grey of dawn. At least those are the claims made to support the pattern. From my experience, I found the woodland and desert patterns more effective. The pixel grey doesn't work as effectively as the terrain-specific patterns. The success or failure of a mission and soldiers' lives often depend upon stealth and it is easily understood why one would rather have a pattern made specifically for the environment over one that is all-purpose. I know many soldiers and veterans who agree, though some may find the new pixel pattern effective enough. The Army's adoption in 2010 of a different brown and green non-pixel pattern called "MultiCam" for troops deployed to Afghanistan recognizes that there are shortcomings with the all-purpose grey pixel.
A large share of the fighting in Iraq took place in urban terrain in territory the enemy knew much better and where all US movements issued from large fortified camps and bases. A force that rides around in Humvees, Bradleys, and Abrams tanks sometimes accompanied by attack helicopters isn't exactly hiding. Even in Afghanistan, where the fighting is in much more rural and remote terrain, the battle consists of trying to draw the enemy out of hiding among the local populace to be engaged. They usually know where our troops are well before we know where they are.
Camouflage, of course, is an important constant for the Army in the modern era. The 20th century saw the end to the old days of pitched battles between armies in colorful and often heavy wool uniforms. As science has progressed, so has the study of camouflage. Simply put, the job of a camo pattern is to break up the recognizable outline of the head, shoulders, torso, and legs of the human form. Solid green, tan, or white uniforms help soldiers blend in with terrain colors. Woodland and desert patterns mimic the shapes of features of the terrain and their shadows as well as their colors. Pixel patterns, rather than being color or shape focused, rely on the confusing effect they have on human eyesight. At a distance, the pixels simply become blotches of color. At least that is the argument made in their favor.
The problem with grading the effectiveness of camouflage patterns comes with finding the proper method to conduct the analysis. Scientific methods rely on the mechanics of how the human eye works, but this may produce a different result than sticking guys in the woods and trying to find them. The field method of testing is closer to the reality of the battlefield and fits with the Army's "train as you fight" mantra. However, the science of sight seems to have won out with the grey pixel pattern. This also seems to be in keeping with the current trend toward a tech-heavy "modern" Army.
The all-purpose grey pixel uniform allowed units to automatically reorder replacement uniforms for soldiers after a field-life of six months. In 2003, my unit had to make due with only two sets of desert uniforms because they couldn't be produced and fielded fast enough to meet the demand. They were also quickly and poorly made and didn't stand up to the rigors of daily wear. By the time we returned from Iraq in 2004 some of our desert uniforms were threadbare and almost white in color, not to mention all the grease, dirt, and blood stains one picks up in combat. We would sweat so much in the desert heat that it would leave behind white rings of salt. Early on we all looked like old washer women, scrubbing uniforms with bars of soap in buckets and hanging them on windows to dry because we only had two of them.
As the US disengages militarily from Iraq and Afghanistan, new possible enemies and conflicts present new challenges. America is engaging foes largely from the air using drone strikes in places like Yemen and Pakistan. Future conflicts with possible foes in Asia may likely require greater control of the seas. Foes with modern military equipment have the capability to identify and engage targets in much the same way the US military does, using thermal imaging and night vision capable devices and weaponry. These technological capabilities may render even an excellent physical camouflage system irrelevant.
The Army is often slow to accept to change. But sometimes changes may not be for the better, as the grey pixel uniform saga has shown.