The U.S. Army’s New Clothes

Why has the Army redesigned its uniforms?

The new Army Combat Uniform

After years of study—and the field deployment of thousands of prototype uniforms in Operation Enduring Freedom—the U.S. Army recently unveiled a new uniform, dubbed the Army Combat Uniform, or ACU. It will become standard-issue for all deployed troops in the fall of 2005. You can count on one hand the number of major uniform upgrades undertaken by the Army in the last century, so this sweeping sartorial redesign begs further analysis. What does the ACU tell us about the state of soldiering?

The new uniform is far removed from the idea of ceremonial military dress or leather-booted authoritarianism that once dominated military dress; rather than constricting and constraining, it gives and breathes and is somewhat shapeless and untucked. The polished, spit-shined black boots have been replaced by suede, no-polish-required tan desert boots; unlike uniforms of yore, it need not be dry-cleaned (which saves soldiers not just money, but time). The design energy applied to the ACU went mostly into making a uniform that would be invisible to foes but visible to comrades. Even a ceremonial detail like the traditional U.S. flag emblem has been khaki-ized into muted tan-and-blacks on some uniforms; no longer a symbol intended to be recognizable across the battlefield, it’s an infrared feedback element visible only to those equipped to see it.

Making the ACU as invisible as possible required developing an entirely new “digital” camouflage pattern, derived from the Marine Corps’ so-called “MARPAT” camo scheme, which was launched in 2001. MARPAT is pixilated—bit-mapped on a computer, and then “printed” directly onto nylon. The effect is as if one had interrupted, at less than full resolution, the downloading of a picture of a traditionally camouflaged soldier, the stripes and whorls dissipating into pointillist bits. Unlike the old camo, digital camo suggests shapes and colors without actually being shapes and colors—like visual white noise. While it may serve a hunter well to appear to be part of a tree, a contemporary soldier needs to be on the move, and so his camouflage must help him blend into the “flow of space.”

Two things distinguish the Army’s ACU camouflage scheme from the Marines’ MARPAT. First, the Marines employ multiple camouflage schemes for different environments, but the ACU is a universal pattern capable of blending into desert, urban, and woodland environments. Second, the color black has been eliminated from the Army camouflage—the Army decided that it is disruptive in a camouflage scheme because it is not found in nature. Some designers, however, think black is necessary in a woodland setting; the places where the black in a camo pattern is most disruptive, it turns out, are urban and desert settings—which may tell us something about where soldiers will be spending their time in years ahead.

The uniform circa 1917

Historically, the U.S. Army has been unique among the branches of the armed forces in its lack of an enduring uniform standard. A study conducted before World War I discovered that the Army had employed different uniforms in every campaign since the Revolutionary War. For a time in the 19th century, a dark blue coat came close to being a standard, but this look was abandoned during the Spanish-American War. As the story goes, the blue coats presented handy targets for snipers; by the campaign’s end, a khaki coat was in service. By World War I, the colors had changed again. The emergence of trench warfare coincided with the creation of “camouflage corps,” and the whole idea of the uniform changed. As Paul Fussell writes in Uniforms, “Back in the Eighteenth Century soldiers needed to be seen in all their threatening glory to demoralize their enemy a short distance away. Now they needed to be unseen.”

After World War II, the Army set out on a nearly decadelong quest to come up with a standard uniform. The olive-drab outfits rushed into service in World War II—the “Brown Jobs,” as they were dubbed—were almost universally despised. The color was no good as camo and, as clothing experts noted, was for good reason virtually absent in the men’s fashion industry. With blue out of the question—it had already been adopted by other service branches—the Army settled on green, eventually adopting the so-called “Shade 44.”

Vietnam soldiers don camouflage

But by 1954, the Army was concerned about more than functionality; it wanted to boost its image and recruit new soldiers. And so, after almost a decade of testing (with input from a wide range of sources, including the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research and Hickey Freeman), the Army unveiled its Army Green Uniform—the standard G.I. Joe look. The Army announced that with the Green Army Uniform, it was “building a uniform tradition.” In response to Vietnam jungle combat, the Army unveiled a number of new camouflage patterns—e.g., M65 ERDL, and the famous “tiger stripe” pattern—each designed by the Army Engineer Research and Development Laboratory. Initially deployed on elite troops (e.g., the Green Berets), the uniform was standard-issue by the war’s end. By 1981, though, this pattern needed another update—this time employing an enlarged, enhanced version of the “tiger stripe” pattern.

Camouflage circa 1980

Predictably, there has been grumbling about the new ACU among the ranks of chat-room soldiers—mostly about the use of Velcro on pocket closures and as backing for the name and insignia badges found on the chest. The concern is not only about the durability of Velcro (which the Army calls a “hook and pile fastener”), but also that a forward scout on a night patrol may reveal his position simply by opening his pocket. When I asked the officials from the Army’s Program Executive Office Soldier—an agency charged with outfitting the soldier—about this, a staff member responded by e-mail: “During the evaluation … it was determined that the issue of noise associated with the hook and pile fastener in a tactical environment could be overcome with familiarity and use during training (noise and light discipline) much like what Soldiers currently do when employing other weapons and individual equipment items in a tactical environment.” Velcro drills! The mind conjures a scientist, buried somewhere in a DARPA lab, working on super-silent stealth Velcro (a conceit, as it happens, that is played upon in the new movie Garden State).

What is most interesting about the ACU? Unlike the Army’s last major upgrade, the uniform seems less designed to improve the Army’s image than to improve conditions for its wearers. Some refinements—a mandarin collar, the shift of pockets from the front of the shirt to the bicep, pouches at the knees and elbows—were executed to accommodate “OTV” (aka Interceptor Body Armor Outer Tactical Vest), a stiff protective material that is finding its way onto larger areas of soldier’s bodies. (The Army is introducing new OTV deltoid covering, for example, to protect soldiers from the upward blast of homemade antipersonnel devices.) The Army’s new Advanced Combat Helmet, meanwhile, meant to be smaller and lighter, has been criticized because it contains less covering on the back and side of the head. In the days of traditional infantry fighting, when most fire came from the front, that would be fine. But in Iraq, fire from snipers and roadside bombs comes from all directions. The battle lines are blurry as the pixellized camo patterns.

Of course, the functionality of any military uniform goes beyond purely practical concerns. As the Austrian-Jewish novelist Hermann Broch * put it, “a uniform provides its wearer with a definitive line of demarcation between his person and the world. … [C]losed up in his hard casing, braced in with straps and belts, he begins to forget his own undergarments and the uncertainty of life.” Call it metaphysical camouflage.

Correction, Sept. 9, 2004: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly referred to Hermann Broch as a “German-Jewish novelist.” Mr. Broch, was from Austria, not Germany.