America: Dressed to Kill

Camouflage Theme — Jacket & Dress (by Dior)

In the months leading up to the attacks of September 11, I began to notice more and more camouflage on and about the American body. I saw it on trousers, tank tops, bandanas and backpacks. It manifested itself in the traditional olive drab and desert putty, but also in azure, gray and even fluorescent pink. It appeared on little girls and boys, mature men and women, black people and white, from coast to coast, in big cities, in exurbs and even in staid resort communities.

Surplus chic had been with us long before this most recent revival. After the Civil War, young men in New York City wore the cheaply-made great coats and other components of Union Army uniforms as ironic statements about the conflict and its war-profiteering special interests. For the Lost Generation of ex-doughboys who mustered out in 1918 after the “War to End All Wars”, fatigues were bittersweet mementos of camaraderie experienced in bivouacs, trenches and foxholes. The same was true for GI Joes and Janes coming home in 1945. (Irving Berlin wrote a song about nostalgia for the armed forces, “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army”.) For the hapless veterans of Vietnam and their Hippie critics on college campuses across the nation, camouflage style was more contested; it was both a scar of post-traumatic stress syndrome and an emblem of utopian alienation and defiance.

But the fad at the dawn of the new Millennium appeared to be different. Military fashion was being conscripted into the mainstream at what seemed to be unprecedented levels. “Camo-style” was no longer the province of musty secondhand stores, sporting goods catalogs, or punker boutiques; it had invaded consumer society through mass-market outlets such as WalMart, Old Navy and Target.

Did the timing of the demand for the new fatigue fashion among so many consumers bespeak of clairvoyance within the collective unconscious of the nation? Was the broad embrace of camouflage an omen of a sense of impending storm, like squirrels scurrying around gathering nuts in autumn is a sign of harsh weather to come? Or was it rather the culture industry at work, that nefarious cabal of hidden persuaders of advertising, spin doctors of PR, and fashionistas of popular media, subliminally indoctrinating an unsuspecting populace into the symbolic language of military order? The swiftness with which the government, assisted by the media, put the rhetoric of war into place in response to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks was stunning, as was the seemingly unilateral acceptance of it.

Camouflage style dovetailed neatly with the psychic realignment that had been underway for several years under the guise of nostalgia for the victory culture that ruled America in the aftermath of the Second World War, the last conflict for which the term “just war” might be genuinely applied. Cultural productions such as Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation (Random House, 1998) franchise evoked in words and images the impulse to duty that camouflage body cover and accessories made palpable on the street.

The “just war” metaphor itself was given renewed vigor by associating the morning September 11 attacks with the dawn bombing of Pearl Harbor. A specter of paranoia showed itself by recalling evidence published around the same time suggesting FDR had prior knowledge of the impending 1941 attack, but let it happen to rally support for entry into an otherwise intangible conflict taking place thousands of miles away from American shores. Perhaps one reason military imagery, wrapped in camouflage (and in renditions of Old Glory), was so necessary was because the rush to war suffered from a dearth of meaning. Words were being unleashed at will in free-fire salvos. Missing in action were concrete definitions that words might signify.

The 9/11 enemy was (and still is) an abstraction. One day the “terrorism in all its forms” might be “Islamist extremists”, another day it might be the “rouge states”. On the one hand, it could be a lone Unibomber-wannabe, on the other, it could be a vast international network of cells linked to Al Qaeda. Their arsenal could run the gamut from “nuclear weapons related program activities” to a little something placed in the daily mail. For purposes of expedience, the image of the unseen enemy initially took shape in the terms “Osama bin Laden” and “Taliban”, though “Saddam Hussein” and “WMDs” soon took their place. (With Saddam under wraps and WMDs nowhere in sight, bin Ladin is making something of a comeback as the enemy to point to, if only to direct attention away from terms like “quagmire” and “cut-and-run”, which are increasingly being used to describe the situation in Iraq and what to do about it.)

Perhaps the most pressing reason for carpet bombing the American civilian landscape with the imagery and rhetoric of war was to foster conditions of perpetual martial law, thereby enabling the US Government to expand its power over citizens. In the wake of September 11, World Policy Institute Fellows Sherle Schwenninger and Ian Cuthbertson suggested that Americans relinquish their civil rights and acquiesce to increased surveillance, limits on unrestricted movement and other “Big Brother” techniques, including identifying “potential terrorists” in the interest of domestic security. (To give credit where it is due, Schwenninger adopted the liberal position, proposing that such power reside with the State “hopefully only for a limited period.”) At the behest of the Bush Administration, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act, permitting the government to snoop into library records, do Internet searches and poke into other private matters in order to ferret out the “enemy combatants” among us and ship them off to Guantanimo or some other maximum-security military facility, maybe never to be heard from again.

At the White House press briefing on the evening of September 11, a staffer at the podium repeatedly referred to John Ashcroft as “General Ashcroft”. (See the White House transcript) Was dropping the “Attorney” title simply a slip of the tongue, or did it reveal the Administration’s mindset of “total mobilization”? President Bush himself has donned the mantle of “wartime president”. And he recently unveiled a campaign to make certain terms of the PATRIOT Act permanent, a full year before the earliest sunset provisions expire. There is also the famed “Top Gun” photo-op incident, featuring the commander-in-chief decked out in what appears to be a codpiece-enhanced flight suit. But as chicken hawks played soldier on the home front, the Associated Press reported that suicide rates of military personnel stationed in Iraq and Kuwait were up, some say due to erstwhile weekend-warrior despair over prospects of being kept in uniform for extended tours of duty. (The story has been reported widely along with government denials of any crisis reflected by the increase in self-inflicted mortality statistics. See Suicide at and Soldier Suicides in Iraq downplayed).

Here on the streets of New York, warmer weather seems to have encouraged camo-chic to come up out of its spider hole after a winter in hiding. At Urban Outfitters in the West Village, sales of camouflage and fatigue apparel are brisk. The Armani Exchange on Fifth Avenue in lower Manhattan has a window of mannequins suited up in gray camouflage sleeveless t-shirts and khaki cargo pants with cinch-buckled, webbed belts to match. For now it seems that camouflage shows no sign of retreat. But then a new question arises: When the popular taste for military fashion is over, will there be a civilian life to which we may eventually return?


Back in the day, Vince Carducci narrowly escaped military conscription with a combined II-S deferment and a high draft-lottery number. His taste runs more to ’60s-vintage “Rat Pack” sharkskin, rather than “Rat Patrol” desert khaki.