Now You See Me: A History of Camouflage on the Body

Muhib Nabulsi is a Meanjin/Brisbane-based writer & editor of theFold.

The use of military metaphor in rap has at times proved highly controversial. The use of the nickname “Chi-raq” for Chicago, a city whose Southside has experienced unprecedented levels of gun violence in the last decade, being the prime example. The term, coined by rapper King Louie and made famous by the Spike Lee film that takes it as its title, became a site of contention for questions of race in a country still publicly denying the systemic nature of police brutality against Black Americans.

Spike Lee came under intense criticism for the title of his modern re-telling of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata. Chance the Rapper addressed Spike Lee on Twitter: “you don’t do any work with the children of Chicago, you don’t live here, you’ve never watched someone die here. Don’t tell me to be calm.” While Chance’s comments are personal in that they are aimed directly at Spike Lee, they do not constitute a personal attack. The defining problem for Chance, and other critics of the film’s title, is Spike Lee’s position as a non-Chicagoan—in no way implicated in the city’s violence, nor a participant in the efforts to curb it through community action—profiting from the term “Chi-raq.” When King Louie released a track titled “Fuck Spike Lee” it was clear who the Chicago rapper sided with. But unlike Chance the Rapper’s tweets, his song didn’t address Spike Lee or his use of the term “Chi-raq” in any way other than declaring, “Chi-raq drillinois fuck Spike Lee.” He didn’t need to justify his opinion and he knew it. His position spoke for him.

Chicagoans’ anger at their city being portrayed as a warzone is elevated when the term “Chi-raq” is used by non-Black non-Chicagoans. This is in part due to the purportedly explicatory, but in fact, de-contextualising causal claim that it implies, that “gang-based violence has made the city into a warzone.” This image, as Black Chicagoans are very acutely aware, tells nothing of the situation of widespread racialised poverty and dire lack of infrastructure and opportunity in majority Black parts of the city. What’s more, the use of “Chi-raq” by those disconnected, both geographically and racially, from Southside Chicago employs the same imperial racist viewpoint—summed up by protagonist Kate Ashby in the series Black Earth Rising: “they just kill each other over there. That’s just what they do”—usually reserved for the Global South; the imperial gaze turned inwards onto a majority Black region of the US. Chicagoans have at least an implicit understanding of the consequences of this imperial gaze. It equates the lives of Black residents of Southside Chicago with the disposability of the Arab people on whom the US drops bombs with impunity.

Coming from the mouths of Black Chicagoans from the city’s Southside, including artists in the city’s drill scene such as King Louie, “Chi-raq” is nothing short of an indictment of the American nation. It configures the American ghetto as an internal colony, complete with a police presence whose continual acts of brutality expose patrols as paramilitary incursions. It also demands the same value of life for the Black residents of Southside Chicago as is attributed—at least in the national imaginary, if not in practice—to veterans returning from Iraq. “Chi-raq,” spoken from Chicago’s Southside to the rest of the country asserts that US imperialism and the continued impoverishment of minority communities in the US are external and internal results of the same apparatus. By doing so, it takes what is usually construed as a local problem and forces its reading as a systemic problem of the American nation.

Between the 50s and 70s, much of the previously colonised world sought independence and self-determination, with emergent nationalisms aiming to unite peoples against their colonial tyrants. Where opposition to colonial domination was violently crushed, this necessitated armed resistance. Long wars of independence eventually succeeded in overthrowing the colonial occupations of the French in Vietnam and Algeria, the British in Kenya, and the Portuguese in Mozambique, Equatorial Guinea, and Angola, among many others. Most of the leaders of these independence movements were Marxist-Leninists inspired by their Cuban contemporaries, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, leaders of the Cuban Revolution.

Whereas hippies wore camouflage in an attempt to disarm a symbol of the militarised nation-state, leftist groups used the pattern to mark themselves as organised threats to the national hegemony. The Vietnam War had been launched by the US amid fears of communism spreading in Southeast Asia via the so-called “domino effect.” This, combined with the assessment of the Black Panthers and its allies as a real revolutionary threat to the US government (history is testimony to this: members of the Black Panther Party were methodically assassinated or imprisoned by the FBI), meant that camouflage carried for those in power the threat, and for groups such as the Black Panthers, Brown Berets, and Young Lords and their supporters the promise, of revolution.

Today, much of the post-revolutionary (nominally) ex-colonial world is marked by political instability and factional warfare, often abetted by Western economic interests. In such places, debating the symbolism associated with camouflage is out of the question; wearing a particular pattern of camouflage may identify you with a certain armed faction, and hence make you a target to others. Furthermore, in countries lacking political stability or those with a history of military coups, wearing camo may in itself be considered an insurrectionary act: the sign of an armed force in its guerrilla infancy.

Though seen by some as the promotion of an aesthetic of violence, the wearing of camouflage by non-soldiers is, in fact, a litmus test for the lack of military violence in one’s immediate environs. After all, a civilian only wears camouflage in the context in which the differentiation between solider and civilian need never be made.

The video for Jay Rock’s 2018 track “OSOM” featuring J. Cole opens with a scene in which the rappers’ characters debrief in a motel room after performing a robbery. From the visual of Jay Rock’s character washing his bloody hands in the bathroom sink, we infer that the robbery did not go according to plan.

“You had your mask on though right?” Jay Rock’s character asks.

“Yeah,” J. Cole’s character replies. CCTV footage then flashes across the screen showing two masked people in all black running across a car park.

“Then you ain’t got nothing to worry about.”

In the poverty-stricken neighbourhoods of America—home more often than not to Black Americans and other people of colour—desperate acts of violence proliferate. In these areas it is not camouflage that is worn by perpetrators, as with the state-sanctioned violence of war, but all-black, embodied symbolically in the black balaclava. After all, green camouflage does little to conceal in the urban environment of bitumen and concrete. What’s more, the aim is not to disguise oneself in order to secure victory, but simply to elude identification and potential imprisonment. When 21 Savage raps “back in the day used to rob with no mask on,” it is intended to convey the utter hopelessness he felt in his life of poverty before fame, manifested in his complete disregard for being identified and imprisoned, or worse.

Since arising from the majority Black ghettos of New York City in the late 70s, hip hop has nonetheless shown a great affinity towards camouflage, with camo-clad artists appearing on countless album covers and posters—New York group Boot Camp Clik went as far as making it an essential component of their unifying military aesthetic. The group who have made the most dramatic use of camouflage, I think most will agree, were militant hip hop pioneers Public Enemy. With often incendiary lyrics expressing rage moulded around stringent anti-imperialist and pro-Black values, Public Enemy employed camo’s revolutionary symbolism to great effect, referencing both the Third World revolutionaries of the 50s and 60s, as well as the would-have-been revolutionaries of the Black Panthers.

In a 2014 review of the reissue of Public Enemy’s 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Craig Jenkins notes that “Public Enemy looked and sounded a fright to the uninitiated, but careful attention showed every piece of this Black radical machine moving in perfect concert.” Camouflage was an essential component of this well-oiled symbolic machine, while the group’s more idiosyncratic and absurd characteristics, such as Flavor Flav’s giant clock pendant, provided the levity necessary to appeal to a wide consumer base.

As Public Enemy, and hip hop as a genre, have been realised for their market potential and subjected to the forces of commodification, so too has camouflage’s meaning on the bodies of rappers made a discernible shift. In our current moment, wearing camouflage does not so much link rappers to the revolutionary and subversive forces of the 20th century as much as it serves as a way of marking on their bodies the violence they have experienced in America’s de-facto segregated urban centres in a way intelligible to middle-class consumers who fetishise violence. Yet unlike Che Guevara’s portrait, which for most has come to symbolise little more than the power of commodification, even the forces of capital cannot bring camouflage to rest. The fact that contemporary politically charged (and involved) rap groups such as Run the Jewels are today still able to activate camouflage as a fabric of resistance is testament to the print’s symbolic tenacity.

Given its ubiquity in hip hop, it is unsurprising that verbal allusions to camouflage and military clothing appear in countless songs. One of the most well known such references is found in one of hip hop’s most acclaimed albums, Nas’s Illmatic. On the album’s final track, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” Nas raps, “sneak an uzi on the island in my army jacket lining,” marshalling 16 syllables into 2 bars with mathematical accuracy and characteristic ease. The island Nas refers to is Rikers Island, one of New York’s most well-known jails, notorious for its size and frequent accusations of inmate neglect and abuse. The majority of prisoners at Rikers are Black or Latinx and come from the city’s low-income neighbourhoods. It is estimated that at any given time around 85% of Rikers’s inmate population have not been convicted of any crime. Nas’s dream, expressed in this line, is of going armed to Rikers in order to free his people imprisoned there. The role of the “army jacket” in this image is crucial; without it he would be a lone renegade acting in self-interest, with it he adopts the symbol of the militarised nation in condemnation of the US’s racist prison-industrial complex, threatening to destroy it via the same organised violent means that the nation employs against the country’s Black and Latinx populations.

Though an important demographic politically, veterans of the armed forces far from constituted a majority in the anti-war movement. The movement was, for the most part, made up of students and other young people, members of a generation intent on challenging inherited values and traditions. The adoption of camouflage into the visual vernacular of protest inevitably led to its appropriation by such non-veterans as part of the broadly defined counterculture.

The meanings of camouflage on the backs of hippies, beatniks, and freaks were as diverse as the ideologies, or lack of, of those who identified themselves as such. For a draft dodger, it may have been an act of ironic insolence, or, in the case of a pacifist hippie, an attempt at disarming the most potent symbol of national military adventurism. For some though, the adoption of camouflage and military attire made a much more explicitly subversive reference.

Now You See Me: A History of Camouflage on the Body

Muhib Nabulsi

Camouflage first came into widespread use during the two World Wars. However, it was not until the Vietnam War, the so-called “televised war,” that the pattern began to take on the level of ubiquity we know today. In this way, the history of camouflage is a uniquely modern one, inextricably linked as it is with the diffusion of images via mass media.

Given the widely circulated nature of footage and photographs depicting the Vietnam War and its horrors, it’s difficult to imagine young men in Vietnam War-era America walking the streets in anything that bore resemblance to the military attire that their friends, unlucky enough to have been drafted, were being killed in. To do so would have been tempting fate. Yet just as much as camouflage—part of the constant stream of imagery from the war—became associated with a bloody, meaningless, and seemingly never-ending conflict, so too did it become identified with the anti-war movement. Veterans returning home from Vietnam traumatised, injured, disabled, or any combination of the three, found few opportunities as they tried to reintegrate into civilian society. In the US they were welcomed by a government unwilling to heed their testimony of the hopelessness of war in general and the unwinnable nature of the Vietnam War in particular.

On April 15, 1967, some twenty such veterans participated in the anti-war march on New York under the banner “Vietnam Veterans Against the War.” Not long after, VVAW was a registered organisation in the state of New York. It later went on to become one of the most powerful groups in the anti-war movement. In the hundreds of marches and protests against the war, veterans gathered in their thousands, much of the time in their fatigues: US army-issue khakis and woodland camo, or the South Vietnamese army-issue tiger stripe camo acquired while on the Asian continent.

The wearing of camouflage and other military clothing by veterans in the anti-war movement was neither coincidental nor ironic. Doing so made a clear claim of experiential authority to the American public: “We were there. You were not.” The participation of veterans in the anti-war movement exposed the brute hypocrisy of the nation’s reverence for its armed forces—government-issue rhetoric propagated to manufacture public consent to a war in which members of the armed forces, often the poor, were being sent to their deaths in the thousands—while appealing to this very reverence in order to validate their testimony and elevate the political cause of the anti-war movement. Camouflage was an essential part of this simultaneous critique of and appeal to the nation, providing veterans with a powerful visual symbol in an age of proliferating photographic and video accounts. This example reveals the second defining aspect of the history of camouflage: its inseparability from the nation.

Embarking on a trip to Chicago from Brisbane earlier this year I thought little of the winter get-up I had assembled. Living in the sub-tropics, it was more a question of trying to choose clothing I wouldn’t freeze in than a considered aesthetic. While I thought the outfit unlikely to solicit any reaction in Australia, walking through LAX and O’hare I noticed that I was receiving some strange looks.

Any unusual attention I attracted, if actual, may have been due to a number of factors. Yet I immediately attributed it to my outfit, which I soon realised had the unmistakable appearance of military garb. On my top half, I wore a large military-style coat: grey-green with a hood so big it would cover your face if pulled all the way forward and large text resembling a military ID number screen-printed on the back. Under my coat was a heavyweight khaki t-shirt with a single chest pocket. On my bottom half, I wore grey wool straight-fit pants, slightly cropped at the ankle, just enough to expose my footwear: sand coloured sneakers modelled after the boots worn by US marines. Waiting in the airport lines I was struck by the possibility that movement to a more militarised country, when combined with my Arab ethnicity and the embattled setting of the 21st-century airport, could so drastically alter the interpretation of my clothing.

Though I wasn’t wearing any at the time, camouflage is undoubtedly the most visible and identifiable military inheritance in fashion. Few other prints have had such an enduring influence on clothing while maintaining their association with the domain from which they were borrowed. Adopted as it has been by the armed forces of every nation-state in the world, camouflage’s origins are both historical and immediately apparent. While it may be ironic, given its stated military purpose, that camouflage has become near-universally intelligible, this irony is shown to be self-serving when we observe that it is this very assertion of universal intelligibility that obscures the countless, yet never arbitrary, meanings of camouflage on the body.

All views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Double Double.

©2019 Muhib Nabulsi. All rights reserved.

While the above example attempts to elucidate the instability of a symbol and its movement between clothing and language, conversations about fashion often culminate in the comparison of the former with the latter. As a participant in such conversations, I have previously condemned this comparison, citing what does and does not constitute language in the view of Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar. Not only is this a thoroughly humourless contribution to these conversations, but it misses the point; people who compare fashion to language are not trying to elevate fashion to the level of language, whatever that would mean. Rather, they are trying to comprehend how, why, and what clothing communicates, using language as a broad analogy.

This being said, such contemplations are nonetheless misguided. Just as Susan Sontag lamented of photography, clothing lacks the explanatory power of language. Sontag famously argued that the meaning of a photograph is entirely dependent on the context in which it appears, and particularly on its caption, that is, on language. Evidently, the meaning of clothing too (not to mention language itself) is context-dependent. The difference is that clothing is always animated by the human being beneath it: a person who simultaneously projects, and has projected upon them, class, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, and political, religious, cultural, and subcultural affiliations.

On my return to Brisbane from Chicago, I was wearing an unremarkable outfit: a white T-shirt and grey sweat shorts. After arriving at Brisbane airport I picked up my bag from the carousel and proceeded through electronic passport control. I was making my way towards the exit when I was pulled aside by a customs officer. He held out his hand for my passport, which he then inspected, scrutinising each page and its stamps. He turned back to the photo page, looked up, and asked me, “what kind of name is that?” As he asked his eyes came to rest on the pendant at the end of my gold chain.

“It’s an Arabic name,” I replied.

He closed my passport in his palm, exposing the gold foil of the Australian coat of arms.

“Where are you from?” He asked.

A series of equally predictable questions followed: what was the reason for my trip to Chicago? What did I do for a living? And so on. He considered each of my answers carefully, and, after a few minutes handed me back my passport.

Despite my exhaustion after 24 hours in transit, I was careful to keep my emotions contained while still within the airport’s walls. But as I stepped into the weight of the Brisbane summer humidity, my indignation quickly turned to anger, and then almost as swiftly back to indignation, as I realised that there was no one around to witness my anger. Due to the time that has passed since it is hard now to directly access how I felt that morning. I do wonder though, how would that interaction have differed if I had been wearing camouflage?

Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Photo: Getty Images.
Review of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back (1988) in the Village Voice. Photo: Village Voice.
Algerian FLN (جبهة التحرير الوطني‎ / Front de Libération National / National Liberation Front) soldiers during the Algerian War for Independence. Photo: Photo12 / UIG via Getty Images.
Screenshot from video for OSOM by Jay Rock featuring J. Cole. Photo: JayRockVEVO.
Above: US servicemen during the Vietnam War in US Army-issue woodland camo (back) and the tiger stripe camo developed by the South Vietnamese Army (front). Photo: US Army Military History Institute. Title photo: US Army Iraq War veteran Michael Prysner, arrested during an anti-war demonstration. Photo: Danny Hammontree.

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