The Empire’s New Clothes (and Everyone Else’s Too)

How a group of Brooklyn designers disrupted camouflage, creating a pattern that spread beyond America’s wars and now appears on all sides of today’s convoluted conflicts

The Empire’s New Clothes (and Everyone Else’s Too)
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

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If you have seen any footage from a battlefield recently, you have probably come across it, maybe without noticing, which is kind of the point: a unique, seven-color camouflage pattern of muted greens and browns.

Hundreds of thousands of United States troops wear it, as do jihadists in places like Syria. The same goes for Ukrainian troops and the mercenaries of the Wagner Group on the Russian side of that war. Before Kabul fell in 2021, some Afghan forces sported it, and now Taliban fighters do, too, having raided the ex-government’s storage facilities. Taking photographs on the outskirts of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, I noticed it everywhere among the crowd: on fatigue-style pants and shirts, on backpacks and pouches, on helmets and ill-fitting body armor. When 26,000 National Guard soldiers deployed to Washington starting the next day, they wore the same camouflage.

Demonstrator wearing a MultiCam plate carrier vest outside the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021. (Wesley Morgan)

The pattern is called MultiCam and, compared to its flashier predecessors like tiger stripe or desert chocolate chip, not much stands out about it — one key to its success. It was devised not long after the 9/11 attacks by a crew of art- and engineering-school graduates based in Brooklyn, New York City. The company, called Crye, set out to disrupt the world of military camouflage. No single pattern can blend into every environment, so Crye decided to create one that simply didn’t stand out in any setting.

The pattern soon became beloved by an elite clientele: U.S. special operations units in Iraq and Afghanistan. These weren’t the regular troops bearing the bulk of the military’s staggering losses. Even as the broader wars sputtered, the limited tactical successes of these units created a longing for the type of conflict many soldiers — and citizens — had wanted and expected. They weren’t aimlessly patrolling insurgent territory, waiting for a sniper’s bullet or a roadside bomb explosion. They were jumping out of helicopters, kicking down doors, and capturing and killing insurgents — increasingly, as the wars continued, while wearing MultiCam.

Over the next few years, as Crye made savvy deals with video game companies to feature their pattern on military-themed shooters, a cachet developed around the camouflage, part of an aspirational, special-operator chic aesthetic. The popularity of video game series like “Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon,” which began featuring MultiCam in 2005, helped cement its image in the minds of ordinary soldiers and civilians alike.

Today, with people from nearly every faction on the world’s battlefields and in protest zones wearing it, the pattern is fulfilling a prediction that cultural historian and World War II infantry veteran Paul Fussell made in his 2002 book “Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear.” “Problems will arise when all armies are clad the same,” he wrote, “in camouflage patterns indistinguishable from each other.”

A major reason so many of the world’s militaries — as well as police departments, militias, guerrillas and even paintball-playing wannabes — have flocked to this one pattern is that MultiCam is good camouflage. It just took a while for the U.S. military to realize it.

In 2002, in the early days of the war in Afghanistan, camouflage designers began competing to win multimillion-dollar Pentagon contracts for Army combat uniforms. Crye was among them, pushing its idea of a camouflage that eschewed the dark greens and midnight blacks and instead took cues from the coats of animals. “Our first attempt was really beautiful and subtle and looked like a painting,” one member of the design crew recalled in a 2006 Q&A at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, referring to Crye’s earliest design. “It didn’t work at all.”

By the time Crye entered the Army competition, the company had perfected what would become MultiCam. It received rave reviews in the trials but lost out in 2004 to a pixelated gray camouflage pattern the military itself had developed, called the Universal Camouflage Pattern. Yet from their offices in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, the small team at Crye, which declined to comment for this story, kept working. It knew it was onto something.

Five years after it chose its new “digital” uniform, the Army realized it had screwed up and that the bluish-gray pattern was widely loathed. In Afghanistan, for instance, U.S. soldiers were tramping around the brown and green hills knowing that their fatigues betrayed their positions to the Taliban. In 2009, under pressure from Congress, the service began searching for solutions — and took another look at the pattern it had rejected.

In November 2009, the Army started issuing MultiCam and another military-designed pattern on an experimental basis to a handful of infantry units in Afghanistan. For the battalion of the 4th Infantry Division that received one of these early batches of MultiCam uniforms, the improvement was obvious the first time its troops wore them while patrolling the rocky, wooden slopes of the Pech Valley in the country’s restive east.

“When you looked at the guys wearing the digital pattern on the side of the hill, they looked like little blueberries that you could see with your naked eye,” said Shaun Conlin, who was then a captain in the battalion. “The day we switched over to MultiCam, we were invisible.”

Intercepted Taliban walkie-talkie traffic confirmed it.

“They were freaking out on the radio,” recalled Ukiah Senti, another officer in the battalion. “They were saying we have these invisible uniforms. It was an instant change.”

This glowing feedback helped convince the Army’s top leaders about the benefits of MultiCam. One year later, as U.S. troop levels passed 100,000 at the peak of then-President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan surge, all U.S. soldiers deploying to the country were issued it.

Other armies in the NATO-led coalition took note. By the summer of 2010, British troops I embedded with in the south of Afghanistan were wearing a type of MultiCam. Australia, Georgia and other coalition partners soon followed. The U.S., British and Australian armies wound up making variants of the pattern their standard camouflage. So have Denmark, Belgium, Portugal, Lebanon, Argentina, Chile and the tiny Mediterranean island nation of Malta, while France is now developing its own version.

“The camo wars are over,” Eric Graves, a veteran and military-equipment expert who founded and edits the industry news site Soldier Systems Daily, told New Lines recently. “And MultiCam won.”

Helping MultiCam achieve this victory was the mystique it had acquired behind the scenes. Its big break had actually come in 2005, years before the first regular Army unit started getting the pattern. At the time, two years into America’s misadventure in Iraq, the war was already widely viewed as a catastrophe. The 140,000-strong U.S. force was making little headway and taking heavy losses, bogged down by seemingly pointless patrols that left troops vulnerable to ambushes and roadside bombs. The only successes — almost invisible to Americans back home because of their top-secret classification — seemed to come from an elite special operations task force that was conducting deadly night raids against insurgent leaders.

Led by the Army’s storied and secretive Delta Force, the task force was tearing through the insurgency’s upper ranks as it hunted jihadist commanders like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Fewer than 100 Delta operators tended to be in the country at any time. But backed by smaller crews from SEAL Team 6 and the British Special Air Service, along with several hundred Army Rangers and as many helicopters, drones and surveillance planes as the Pentagon could muster, Delta was emerging as one of the only units producing measurable results.

Delta wanted nothing to do with the Army’s hated digital fatigues.

“We were doing night operations, and that blue-gray digicam was terrible for that,” said Mike Burke, a retired Army Ranger whose platoon worked with Delta in Baghdad in 2005. “Any kind of low-level light just made it shine.”

Exempt from the military’s stringent uniform regulations, Delta operators didn’t wear the digital fatigues in combat except when trying to conceal themselves as conventional troops, a former unit member told me, asking not to be named because of Delta’s classified status. And because Delta had the authority to buy off-the-shelf commercial gear, its operators experimented with other patterns in Iraq. MultiCam emerged as their favorite. Soon the British SAS troopers were wearing it too, then the Rangers, and then, as the other U.S. war effort in Afghanistan ramped up, special operations units from across the NATO coalition there — Poles, Norwegians, Australians and New Zealanders.

In the mid-2000s, photos of special operators in the field were rare. Reporters weren’t allowed to embed with Delta’s task force, and almost everything they were doing was top secret. But the connection between elite units and MultiCam emerged publicly in another way. Video games depicting commandos clearing rooms and killing terrorists were already a phenomenon before the early 2000s, but after 9/11, the so-called war on terror drastically increased the popularity of such games. The conflict also provided an opportunity for game developers to infuse their products with straight-from-the-battlefield details that — though this might have been lost on most teenagers around the world — involved quiet cooperation between game companies and outfits like Crye.

Travis Getz, an artist for Red Storm Entertainment, a popular video game company, was at the gaming industry’s annual conference in Los Angeles in May 2005. That’s where he saw a representative from Natick Labs, an Army organization responsible for developing new infantry equipment, which had fielded a booth at the expo as part of the Army’s effort to boost recruitment by inserting its weapons, gear and lingo into video games. This rep was walking the floor of the event decked out in a mock-up of futuristic armor — and MultiCam. Getz was intrigued. “The Natick guys brought me in the back room of their booth, and I had my camcorder out while they detailed all the different parts and the camouflage,” Getz said. “I took that back to the developers.”

Later that year, “Ghost Recon 2,” the second installment in Red Storm’s successful franchise based on the Tom Clancy thrillers, showed MultiCam on a set of new missions that players could buy, in which U.S. commandos were sent to kill a Pakistani arms dealer. With help from Crye representatives, Red Storm then featured the pattern far more prominently in its next Clancy game in 2006, outfitting the main character with it and putting MultiCam fatigues on the game’s cover.

A year later, MultiCam hit the silver screen with a cameo in “Transformers.” But from an advertising perspective, video games — others of which started featuring the pattern after it was in widespread regular Army service — achieved something that even Hollywood blockbusters couldn’t. “If you can get your product in a movie, someone watches that movie maybe four times if they really like it,” Getz said. “But two hours an evening is nothing for a lot of gamers, and it’s interactive — players will be talking to each other within the game about the weapons and uniforms they’re going to pick.” With marketing for the game expanded to TV spots and online ads, people who would never play the game became aware of MultiCam.

I first encountered MultiCam during a reporting trip to Afghanistan in the spring of 2009, when I spent a couple of weeks embedded with Green Berets in Wardak province south of Kabul. By then, the pattern screamed “special ops” to most ordinary troops, who still didn’t have it. U.S. special operators had become trendsetters — their choices of gear, camouflage and even facial hair emulated by some units and envied by others whose strict uniform and grooming regulations prevented it. This allure developed despite the fact that so little was known about what these operators were actually doing — or perhaps because of this.

U.S. Army Green Berets wearing MultiCam on a mission in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province in May 2009. (Wesley Morgan)

For many young soldiers in regular Army units, MultiCam’s mystique came more from the video games they were playing during downtime than from any meaningful interactions they had with the special operators, who lived on separate bases-within-bases and flew out for raids in the middle of the night. If you were a soldier at a remote outpost in Afghanistan and a group of unidentified commandos showed up, you knew who they were by what they were wearing. It was the camouflage of troops who weren’t stuck in the middle of nowhere, sucking up incoming rocket fire and walking through fields full of roadside bombs. It was the camouflage of troops who seemed to represent strength and control amid the wider chaos.

Today, in a testament to MultiCam’s reach and the power of its brand, some of the very groups that U.S. troops spent years fighting have adopted the pattern.

Nowhere is this more striking than in Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s Interior Ministry has filmed a series of propaganda videos of its fighters training in MultiCam uniforms seized from the stocks of the defeated government. “Taliban special forces are always outfitted in Western commando gear now,” the Afghan-American novelist Jamil Jan Kochai told me after a recent trip to Kabul, marveling that the operator style he first encountered playing the “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” video games had migrated to the militant movement. While official Taliban edicts ban Western-style clothes in offices and require rank-and-file fighters to wear traditional shalwar kameez, “you see their special forces guys doing the opposite, adopting all the gear and aesthetics of the Western special forces who used to kill them,” Kochai said. “It’s fascinating.”

A still from a video released by the Taliban’s Interior Ministry in February 2023, showing fighters training in MultiCam inherited from the previous government’s paramilitary police commandos. (YouTube)

Donning the equipment and weapons of defeated enemies — especially technologically superior ones — isn’t new. Osama bin Laden often posed with a snub-nosed carbine typical of the Soviet paratrooper and commando units that had been Afghan and Arab mujahideen’s most feared foes in the 1980s. Zarqawi, the insurgent leader whom the Delta task force killed in Iraq in 2006, did the same with a scoped M4 rifle. What’s different is that today’s militants are adopting an entire aesthetic — one that only continues to spread.

“It’s available and attainable,” said Graves, the soldier equipment expert. “It’s also aspirational.”

Many of the proliferating uniforms are knockoffs — Crye has said that it is waging a fight against counterfeits — but this only underlines the pattern’s popularity.

“Since the beginning of uniforms, repeatedly, there’s been a cycle of copying,” explained Charles McFarlane, a graduate student at New York University who researches military uniforms and authors the blog Combat Threads. “With MultiCam, this trend has transcended what side of the geopolitical divide you’re on.”

That cycle presents a tactical problem, though: While one job of camouflage is to help soldiers avoid enemy detection, its other, somewhat contradictory purpose is to allow forces on the battlefield to tell one another apart.

The war in Ukraine has highlighted this dilemma. Some Ukrainian paramilitary units have been wearing MultiCam knockoffs since Russia’s invasion in 2014, with members of the controversial Azov Brigade — whose ranks include neo-Nazis and other far-right ultranationalists — even celebrating it with a band called My Skin Is MultiCam. The pattern has spread to regular Ukrainian army units since Russia’s latest invasion in 2022, thanks to an influx of U.S.-supplied gear. At the same time, MultiCam has become the de facto uniform of the Wagner Group, which has an estimated 50,000 troops fighting on the Russian side. The similarities in uniforms and equipment have led the opposing armies to add colored armbands to their uniforms.

“That’s the oldest form of identification on the battlefield,” McFarlane said. “It’s how naval boarding parties did it in the 18th century.”

In the conflict in Syria, MultiCam appears on at least three sides — U.S. troops, some Russian units and jihadist groups like the former al Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. In this visual ambiguity lies danger not just for combatants but also for civilians trying to survive.

During the final years of the conflict, Afghans in war-torn parts of the country often couldn’t tell the difference between government special operations units, the CIA’s Afghan surrogate troops, and Taliban “Red Unit” commandos because their tactics, equipment and uniforms were so similar. One U.S. special operator who advised Afghan commandos told me that in embattled districts around Kandahar, Taliban fighters took advantage of this confusion to blame war crimes they committed, like killing detainees, on CIA-backed government units — something they could plausibly do since those units were reportedly also responsible for summary executions.

Similar confusion has sometimes occurred when police dress like special operations personnel. In the U.S., during the racial justice protests in 2020, this even led Pentagon leaders to worry that the violence of camouflage-clad police would tarnish the military’s reputation.

Specialized teams within the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement organizations have long worn camouflage when working in wooded terrain or on overseas deployments attached to the military. However, MultiCam fatigues have increasingly become those units’ default attire. The Border Patrol Tactical Unit adopted the pattern as its standard uniform in 2015, and the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team now wears it for most deployments, too, including when its members circled Washington, hanging from the doors of helicopters, during the June 2020 protests.

U.S. Border Patrol agents wearing MultiCam behind the fortified perimeter of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Federal Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, July 25, 2020. (CBP photo via FOIA 2021-004046)

After the Trump administration rushed National Guard soldiers and federal agents to confront demonstrators outside the White House that month, some early news reports wrongly attributed the firing of rubber bullets to National Guard members, and many protesters assumed that FBI teams in MultiCam were soldiers. The confusion led Mark Esper, then defense secretary, to ask the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department not to deploy their agents in military-style uniforms, according to Esper’s recent memoir, “A Sacred Oath.”

But when Homeland Security and Justice later sent hundreds of personnel to Portland, Oregon, those who clashed violently with protesters still included MultiCam-clad members of at least three federal agencies: the U.S. Marshals, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Their affiliations were often marked with camouflage-green shoulder patches, but these blended into their uniforms at a distance or in photographs from the wrong angles. Some observers mistook the CBP and ICE agents who were making arrests for members of the military. The Pentagon’s top spokesperson issued a statement confirming that there were no military personnel in Portland and calling for “a system where people can tell the difference.”

This article was published in the Spring 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.

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