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“All warfare is based on deception,” Sun Tsu sagely noted years ago, and no one has yet proved him wrong.

Centuries before Sun Tzu plotted for various emperors, the Greeks dished up a grand gift for the Trojans using a little deception of their own. Since then, the world’s armies have become sleekly sophisticated, enlisting scientists, engineers, naturalists and artists to deceive the enemy and protect their soldiers.

I must say, though, the mysterious materialization of a gargantuan wooden horse, dependent only on the curiosity of your enemy – can anyone really beat that?

Back to the 21st century and enter the Pentagon, where military brass and brains are designing the wardrobe of the U.S. soldier among other tasks. The restyle is urgently needed because their last camouflage pattern proved disastrous. The Universal Camouflage Pattern or UCP, sounds as dull as it looks.

But that’s by far the least serious issue. The 2004 pixilated design cost $5 billion and left soldiers feeling they were walking targets, offering little to no protection in any environment.

Eric German in The Daily quotes an Army specialist as he describes enduring the dismal UCP in Iraq: “The only time I have ever seen it work well was in a gravel pit.”

Discarded UCP pattern and some contenders

Garbing the Army with useless and expensive gear is almost a case study on the failures of bureaucracy, and the most recent “improvement,” Multi-cam, isn’t making the grade either. While the Army argued politics with specialists and counter-specialists over the years, the Marines showed us how it’s done.

The story goes that their 2002 MARPAT uniform (digital camo, styled after Canada’s) was quickly vetted after a little input from Marine snipers at Quantico, Va.

But there’s more – they helped choose a base color at a local Home Depot store by using paint samples – “Coyote Brown,” to be exact. The Marines’ famed “flexibility of execution” and open methods came in handy here.

If MARPAT is working so well for the Marines, why not use it for the entire Army? Apparently the Marines aren’t having it, as the few and proud won’t share their signature uniforms with just anyone.

Military couturiers employ mostly digital artists at this point, but that wasn’t always the case. Modern camouflage as a distinct, visual and scientific field began with painter and naturalist Abbott Handerson Thayer. His major 1909 books on protective coloration, mimicry and concealment in animals influenced military camouflage in World War I as well as other American artists.

The French, originators of “trompe de l’oiel” (or tricking the eyes) were first to employ military camouflage in 1915. Roy R. Behrens relates how they made painter Lucien Victor Guirand de Scevola commanding office of the fledging art designed to protect planes during airborne strikes. Groups of “camoufleurs” had previously been sculptors, painters, architects, illustrators and stage designers in civilian life.

"Dazzling" HMS Kildangan (1918)

Painter George de Forest Brush magically caused airplanes to “disappear” while Thayer worked out techniques in disruptive, high-contrast camouflage. Using his theories, British artist Norman Wilkinson morphed Allied ships into startling apparitions that confused German U-boat gunners planning to sink them.

Unable to hide the floating behemoths, they choose to “dazzle” instead. Early camouflage art was heavily influenced by Cubism with its exploded vision. Resembling a deranged circus in black and white, the unresolved angles and heavily distorted perspective made it difficult to tell aft from anchor. Before the age of radar, this was enough to leave the enemy grasping for the speed and direction of a ship that appeared to change shape before his eyes. Allied ships had been sitting ducks for submarines, but records show less than 1 percent of U.S. merchant ships were lost after being tricked out to “dazzle.”

Europe’s artists were so taken by the new science that it influenced terminology and led to a “camouflage aesthetic” between the World Wars. While Picasso and Braque inspired transformation of Allied ships, contemporary Surrealists crafted theories based on disguise, deception and surprise.

Salavador Dali and Max Ernst were particularly struck by Thayer’s research and used it inventively in their art. Cellular metamorphosis, figure-ground reversal and confusion between animate and inanimate objects were all likely cousins of the camouflage movement. Dali actively supported the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil war with a visual rhetoric that helped by “controlling the enemy’s vision and paralyzing it.” Because many artists personally served in World War I, their later work was a personal and graphic response to it.

America’s camouflaged uniforms began with a rush order by General MacArthur in 1942. Designed by a horticulturalist and garden editor for Sunset magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle of all things, the patterns on these 150,000 jungle prototypes were dubbed “frogskins.”

Since then, U.S. military camouflage has met with varying degrees of success and disaster with the most recent designs listing toward appalling. After billions of dollars and a decade of work, we know the Army must be serious about this. But is there an inverse relation between the massive design campaign with hordes of experts and actual results?

As it stands, the next generation U.S. camo is still in development and research. Contending designs must consider varied terrains and light, scale and shadow and appear to break up outlines of a soldier’s body and depth. It should work equally well from all distances. That’s a lot to ask a lowly pair of fatigues and underlies the difficulty in creating the perfect camouflage.

Optical and perception studies are getting more sophisticated by the minute, and the Pentagon pays plenty of attention to science. Because they’ve had less than stellar results with the digital patterns, one possibility is to just make soldiers disappear at will, which would solve almost everything.

Technology for the “Harry Potter cloak” is already here with the advent of a cloth imbued with almost supernatural powers. British Columbia company Hyperstealth Biotechnology claims to have created an “invisibility cloak” using effects of light bending to completely fool the human eye. If that wasn’t enough, the material also removes thermal signatures, helping to block infrared detection according to Hyperstealth statements. Other than Superman, who can compete with this?

Our soldiers will be thrilled to have something practical and safe on their backs while in combat. But not all warfare occurs in jungles, deserts or open terrain. Because modern terrorist attacks have increased in heavily populated areas, allow me to offer an artist’s rendition of specialized, urban camouflage for consideration:

"Urban camouflage" for Tokyo

"Urban camouflage" for Seattle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If the Star Wars technology works in the field, traditional camouflage may soon be tossed out with other historical relics. But because of the huge influence that camo has on civilian fashion and culture, it will probably always be around in one form or another.

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