From Powdered Wigs to Camouflage: The Ever-Changing Style of the U.S. Army

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The nature of war has changed dramatically since George Washington crossed the Delaware. And the way soldiers dress reflects those changes.

army-uniforms.jpgUniforms from two different eras on display at a U.S. Army anniversary celebration at Times Square. (Reuters)

Those who have never served in the military would find it hard to believe the attention placed on a soldier's appearance. Army Regulation 670-1 governs the wear and appearance of the Army uniform and is constantly revised. But it goes far beyond just uniforms. It covers shaving, haircuts, and hairstyles; fingernail polish, length, and cleanliness; tattoos, piercings, and dental work; and even extends to off-duty appearance. AR 670-1 is the reason you won't find soldiers with their hands in their pockets.

This degree of micromanagement is one of many reasons many, including myself, decide not to make the Army a career. During my nine years in the service, I followed regulations like a professional soldier, but after I came back from combat each time I found it increasingly difficult to care about what color gym bag I could or couldn't carry.

And yet, when I joined the U.S. Army in 1999, I starched and pressed my uniform every day with creases so sharp you could cut bread with them. I polished my boots to a shine so high you could see your soul in it. Some soldiers used to soak their uniforms in buckets of starch and iron them until they could stand up on their own. Others used hair dryers to melt and re-melt their boot polish. A few used floor wax. Many would turn their uniforms in to the cleaners every week to be pressed. Some even bought their own industry-grade machines. Every Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. there was a showdown to see which platoon had the sharpest looking troopers.

After I came home from Iraq the first time in 2004, a pressed uniform and shined boots just weren't that important to me anymore. Some leaders I'd known seemed more impressed by a "squared away" uniform than a soldier's actual ability to do their job at war. Many of my former colleagues privately felt leaders should be focused on fighting wars, not looking good in garrison. These arguments will never die.

Yet U.S. Army uniforms remind us of our history, an ever-present sight during our national holidays. There are the blue and grey coats of early America; the browns of WWI; the olive drabs of WWII and Korea; the "tigerstripe" of Vietnam; the Woodland of the Cold War and Balkans; the "Chocolate Chip" of the Gulf War; the desert pattern of the Iraq War; and the grey pixels and "MultiCam" of Afghanistan. The U.S. Army's uniforms have evolved over centuries along with the conflicts they have fought in as the need for camouflage has remained an important constant for the military in the modern era.

Before the 20th century, there was no such need to blend in with the surroundings. Armies fought pitched battles in colorful and often heavy wool uniforms arrayed on opposing sides of a large field. The rationale behind the uniforms of the 18th and 19th centuries was largely identification. Any school kid in America knows the British wore red. The French and Russians often wore blue or white. There was also an element of pride and flash in the uniforms, as Dukes and Counts often paid to maintain their own regiments and wanted them to look sharp. Some of them paraded them about like their own real toy soldiers. They tried to use colors that stood out well in the fog of battle and were easily distinguished from the enemy.

These bright uniforms may seem silly today, but they were worn in a time where there were no electronic communications to relay to commanders what was happening on the battlefield. The brightly colored uniforms allowed generals to look across the field and see where their troops were holding, failing, or advancing. It was not the kind of warfare where anyone took cover when battle was joined, even amid artillery shelling. Armies rarely dug or constructed bunkers or breastworks unless under siege. Imagine Napoleon and Lord Wellington looking across the smoke-filled battlefield with their field glasses. They knew only what they could see or messengers could relay to them. Their staff officers had to track changes in the battle with pieces on a map. Their uniforms were hot, heavy, and uncomfortable, but they served an important function. Military uniforms of the 18th and 19th centuries were made to be seen.

The American colonials largely lacked the funds and time to develop and implement such outfits, or to mimic the European system of designating military units with different colored trims. America's first army under George Washington had no official uniform. The Continental Congress ordered Minutemen to dye their clothing brown, but most didn't have the time or means to do so. As the American experience at Valley Forge showed, they were at times lucky to have coats or shoes at all. The original thirteen colonies fielded their own small organized militias and their uniform styles were as varied as the states they served. Though some were brown, green, or red, those who had uniforms most often wore different types of heavy blue coats with shiny brass buttons, similar to the one famously adopted by General Washington himself.

The U.S. Army of the 19th century largely did away with the big hats, wigs, and ornamental elements of the military uniforms of the past century as time wore on, though they retained mostly blue uniforms of thick wool with shiny metal buttons. The army of the independent Republic of Texas adopted grey uniforms. The Confederacy also chose grey to distinguish its soldiers from the federal blues in the Civil War. It was still generally the kind of warfare where units lined up and marched forward into musket or cannon fire with deadly result, as seen in skirmishes such as Pickett's Charge.

None of the Civil War uniforms were very functional, especially in the climate of the American south and west. During the battle for Atlanta in the summer of 1864, hundreds of soldiers on both sides suffered from exhaustion and heat stroke in their wool uniforms under the Georgia sun. Soldiers suffered similar problems in the wars against Mexico and the Native Americans on the Great Plains and in southwestern deserts.

The turn of the 20th century brought with it the idea that uniforms should be made for utility and concealment. Previous U.S. Army uniforms hadn't taken the climate or terrain much into account, other than perhaps to mercifully adjust the wear or weight of their material for summer. In 1902 the U.S. Army, learning from Britain's experience in colonial Africa and India, adopted the khaki uniform, known as "drab."

In the following years, almost every western military ditched the traditional bright colors and adopted uniform colors that aided concealment in shades of khaki, brown, or grey. At the outbreak of WWI, only the French Army maintained colorful uniforms of blue coats and red trousers.

World War I -- with its grinding trench warfare and development of machine guns, tanks, and warplanes -- had a powerful role to play in this change. For the first time, military uniforms were not meant to be seen, and this shift became even more pronounced a generation later. When most Americans think of G.I. Joe serving in World War II, they picture the M-1943 olive drab uniform, which was designed with the cold, wet, and verdant climates of Europe in mind.

Uniforms made of tightly-woven cotton "Byrd cloth" were designed for service in the tropics to stop mosquito, flea, and leach bites and allowed for better cooling than wool. However, these uniforms took longer to make and field and there was an acute shortage of them. Some old soldiers found it hard to shed military formality completely in favor of utility. General George S. Patton famously insisted that officers under his command still wear their ties into combat.

The U.S. Army field uniform remained largely unchanged with only a few minor alterations until the 1980s. When we think of the Korean War, we often picture men freezing in olive drab fatigues and coats huddled around fires wearing their pile caps. Grunts wore generally the same green uniform made of cotton in the jungles of Vietnam. The famous "tigerstripe" camouflage uniform worn in the 1960s by American advisors and special operations units in Vietnam was never officially authorized, though it was effective in the dense jungle. It also mimicked the uniforms worn by South Vietnamese soldiers and allowed U.S. troops to blend in with their counterparts as well as the terrain.

Since that time, American camouflage has gone through a number of revisions - from the interlocking pattern called "ERDL," introduced in 1968, to the new pixelated pattern introduced in 2005.

But is camouflage still relevant? A large share of the fighting in Iraq took place in urban terrain. All U.S. movements issued from large fortified camps and bases that were often watched from the outset by enemy observers. A force that rides around in armored Humvees and Abrams tanks accompanied by attack helicopters isn't exactly hiding. In Afghanistan where the fighting is in much more rural, rocky, and remote terrain, the battle consists of trying to draw the enemy out of hiding among the local populace to be engaged. Pulling the enemy out of hiding is the only way to know they're there. They usually know where our troops are well before we know where they are. The U.S. Army isn't sneaking up on anyone anymore. Essentially, U.S. troops want to be attacked by their clandestine enemies so they can engage and destroy them.

The U.S. Army of today is not a nimble beast that moves stealthily; it is more like a rhinoceros that is a force to be reckoned with. During my first tour in Iraq in 2003, we wore less personal armor and I was able to, on a few occasions, sprint after bad guys down the streets of Baghdad. By my second trip to Baghdad in 2005, wearing virtually my own body weight in gear made this unlikely. The Army had to change and "turtle up" to protect troops and convoys from ambushes and IEDs on supply routes. When fighting like this, camouflage isn't as important.

It can be argued that the U.S. Army today is fighting in a position more similar to those of the armies of the 18th and 19th centuries. Almost everything we're doing happens in plain sight. We are in some ways like the British Redcoats of old; we fight in plain sight while our enemies hide amongst the locals and choose softer targets to attack. Ironically, military commanders of earlier centuries used to think camouflage itself was cowardly. Even the New York Times as late as 1917 called new idea of military camouflage "hocus pocus." It is no wonder some make comparisons between America today and the empire of Great Britain then.

If anything, a new form of camouflage is emerging. Special operations forces, especially Green Berets, often operate by learning the local language and training indigenous populations to fight for U.S. interests. They operated like this effectively among the Montagnard people in Vietnam, the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and the Kurds of northern Iraq, among others. To do this, they often shed their Army uniforms in favor of native dress and mannerisms, grew beards, carried local weaponry, and even took to horseback to gain the support and trust of local populations. Some regular Army units partially followed their lead by encouraging soldiers to grow moustaches and let their hair grow a little longer than usual among Middle Eastern cultures that view facial hair as a sign of masculinity.

These special operations units are among the most effective and successful in counterinsurgency operations. What we discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan is that wielding an AK-47, growing a beard, and learning to grin and bear "man kisses" and male hand holding may be better camouflage than any uniform. In doing so, they attract the respect and trust of peoples who have a natural mistrust of western outsiders, especially Americans.

Camouflage does remain important in many military scenarios. It is essential to downed pilots and special operators making ground infiltrations. It will always remain important to scouts and snipers in the field, or to soldiers who are separated from support when an operation begins to go bad and have to pull back into the shadows. These are scenarios in which concealment remains and will likely always be very important.

What's indisputable is that U.S. Army soldiers today are the best equipped and outfitted in the entire world's history. Picture General Washington's Minutemen, shuffling around on watch in the snow of the frigid winter at Valley Forge, shouldering their own hunting muskets, blowing into frozen hands, clad in thin linen shirts, old leather breeches, and worn out shoes. The aristocratic English generals and Lords of the Admiralty didn't take these upstart colonial farmers and merchants seriously.

The American fighting man has certainly come a long way from those hard days at Valley Forge. Pixels or no pixels, General Washington would have approved.

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Chris Miller is a Purple Heart recipient who served two tours in Iraq. He is currently a policy advocate at Veterans for Common Sense, and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

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