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Universal Failure

How UCP became an unpopular symbol of the Iraq War

In 2007, when the “surge” in Iraq that deployed more than twenty thousand additional troops was getting underway, I was in sixth grade. While I can’t really recall the details, I have a vivid memory of seeing a burned-out American Humvee, presumably destroyed in an IED blast, on the news. The soldiers standing around it all wore a strange pixelated gray camouflage. That was the first time I noticed Universal Camouflage Pattern, or UCP. As the war in Iraq continued to spiral out of control, this camouflage became a visual symbol of the conflict, in part because it was so easy to spot: camo that stuck out like a sore thumb.

Critical articles like “Troop ‘Surge’ Took Place Amid Doubt and Debate” and “Redefining Goals: Less Talk of Victory Now” were routinely accompanied by images of U.S. soldiers in the pixelated camouflage. At the height of the surge in 2007, the deadliest year of the war for the U.S. military, some 170,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq, most of them wearing UCP. When Stephen Colbert took The Colbert Report on the road to Iraq two years later, UCP had become so synonymous with the war that he wore a custom Brooks Brothers suit made from UCP fabric, complete with sleeve insignia.

The development and eventual fielding of UCP was the result of a revolution in military camouflage pattern design. Previously the domain of artists and naturalists, camouflage in the last decade of the twentieth century had started to become a science. No longer would patterns be drawn from nature, like tiger stripes or foliage, nor from abstract shapes and brushstrokes. Now, camouflage patterns would be based on neuroscience. Lt. Col. Timothy O’Neill, a camoufleur (as military camouflage designers and experts are called), argued for this more regimented approach, using square micro and macro overlaid patterns to “trick” the human eye. O’Neill, who developed his Duel-Tex vehicle camouflage in the late 1970s, is credited as the grandfather of digital camouflage. It would be another twenty-odd years before his theory was widely adopted for military uniforms.

The Army decided on a single “universal” pattern that never lived up to its name, except in the negative.

The eventual move toward pixel-flage was started by Canada. In the 1990s, the Canadian military began developing what would become CADPAT, or Canadian Disruptive Pattern. Using a range of colors found in the Canadian landscape, a camouflage pattern was rendered digitally into a pixelated motif and issued to Canadian soldiers in 1997. “We expected it to be copied as soon as it became evident that we would come up with a superior product,” said retired Canadian Army Major Doug Palmer, who was part of the team developing the pattern, in a 2020 interview.

Palmer’s prediction bore out. Before CADPAT was even issued to the Canadian Army, the U.S. Marine Corps took notice. With an explicit desire to stand out, the Marine Corps began developing its own new camouflage pattern. “This uniform not only needed to actually work, it needed to be unique,” said one of the Marines working on the design. The Marine Corps, using different color schemes for desert and wooded terrain, eventually produced a near copy of CADPAT, naming it MARPAT, or Marine Pattern.

Suddenly, pixelated camouflage was the new “it” military pattern. As Cheryl Stewardson, a textile technologist at the Army research center in Natick, Massachusetts, put it in a 2012 interview, “It was trendy.” The U.S. Army, conducting its own hunt for a new camouflage, pushed for a digital design like the Canadians and the Marines had. “If it’s good enough for the Marines, why shouldn’t the Army have that same cool new look?” Stewardson explained to The Daily. The result was UCP, adopted by the Army in 2005.

It did not take long for the Army’s new camouflage to be ridiculed. While both the Canadians and Marines had opted for two patterns for different locales, the Army decided on a single “universal” pattern that never lived up to its name, except in the negative. As one army Specialist put it, it “universally failed in every environment.” An image of a UCP-clad soldier perfectly blending into an ugly floral sofa was turned into a meme with captions like, “Designed to work everywhere. Doesn’t work anywhere. Except your grandma’s couch.”

While those who wore it in the field quickly grew to dislike the uniform, civilian observers were slower to catch on. The idea of “pixels” was a relatively new concept to most people; it seemed to be a shape that represented modernity and technology: camouflage for the future. As the New York Times put it in 2013, digital camouflage “gave soldiers the look of video game characters.” Another article went as far as to call the new patterns “techno” and “high-tech.”

Still, by 2009, the proliferation and effectiveness of UCP were beginning to be questioned by lawmakers, not least due to its high price tag: the Army alone spent $5 billion developing and producing the uniforms. Due to overwhelmingly negative reviews of UCP camouflage, Congress directed the Army to provide appropriate camouflage for soldiers deploying to Afghanistan in the FY 2009 Supplemental Appropriations Act. These soldiers were issued uniforms in a stopgap pattern called Operation Enduring Freedom Camouflage Pattern (OEF-CP), so named for the ongoing U.S. operation in Afghanistan.

This pattern was the off-the-peg Multicam camouflage by Crye Precision. Its new name referred to where the camouflage was to be used, but it also pushed away from the failure of UCP and the war in Iraq more generally. OEF-CP reflected a change in focus, away from Iraq and toward the “good war” in Afghanistan, as it became known in the Obama administration. When the Army was considering new patterns to replace UCP, they purposely avoided anything that looked remotely like it. According to an Acquisition Research Program sponsored report, “The digital patterns . . . were never seriously considered because Army senior leaders were concerned about . . . the soldier/public perception of the Army choosing another ‘digital’ pattern.” While the official phaseout of UCP only came in 2019, it receded in public view, replaced by the Multicam of the Afghanistan war.

The pattern has had slightly more success in pop culture than in the field. In Hollywood, the first film to use the pattern appears to be 2006’s Southland Tales, a dystopian black comedy set in near future Los Angeles. UCP appears throughout the film, but its star performance comes during a haunting scene in which Justin Timberlake, playing an Iraq War veteran, lip-syncs to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” in a drug-induced fantasy while wearing a blood-stained white T-shirt and UCP pants, with extras in full uniform behind him. Children of Men, released the same year and set in England in 2027, featured uniforms in a camouflage pattern that was clearly based on UCP. And in 2007, Transformers brought UCP to an even wider audience. This choice forecasted the pattern’s association with futuristic and dystopian films. It was later featured in movies like World War Z (2013) and Arrival (2016); even Avatar (2009) used a pixelated camouflage pattern for the villainous “Resources Development Administration” forces. Patterns like UCP are still being used today to denote science fiction, appearing in the new Apple show Monarch: Legacy of Monsters.

Along with its sci-fi connotations, UCP also became shorthand for authenticity. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which came out in 2008 and is set in Iraq in 2004, follows an Explosive Ordnance Disposal tech played by Jeremy Renner. All the U.S. soldier characters wear UCP, despite the film taking place a good year before it was issued, because the pattern was by then so associated with the ongoing war.

Similarly, video games looking to capture ever more realistic and modern scenarios began to use the pattern, most famously in Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, which came out in 2009. In one memorable moment, the player, clad in UCP, must defend the fictional American suburban fast food restaurant “Burger Town” from invading Russians. The Burger Town logo has since been made into a real-life velcro patch by Ahoworks, a company that specializes in “patches and militaria topped off with (more than) a sprinkle of anime and memes.” In December 2022, Ahoworks posted a photo on X of someone in a full UCP kit, their rifle pointed down range and a Burger Town patch affixed to their shoulder. The caption read “UCP will make a comeback.

While nowhere near as popular as Multicam, it’s clear that a younger demographic is starting to appropriate UCP. “I pretty distinctly remember thinking it was super futuristic looking,” says Nicholas Murphy, a twenty-year-old college student and militaria collector, who remembers first seeing UCP when he was around five years old. For Murphy and others like him, it is Call of Duty and other media from their childhood that imbue the pattern with nostalgia, rather than the war in Iraq. In conversations with younger people who are “into” UCP now, pieces of pop culture kept coming up. “Another point of nostalgia would be the Transformer movies as well,” said eighteen-year-old Christopher Munoz. “I find it fitting that the U.S. was fighting alien robots in digital sci-fi looking uniforms.”

The reappraisal of UCP by younger people feels like the canary in the coal mine of Iraq War nostalgia.

Today, not all UCP is military-made. Supreme, known for its wide use of camouflage, started making UCP-inspired styles as far back as 2017. And in 2023, the brand produced a reversible fleece pullover in the pattern, an homage to a near-impossible-to-find Patagonia fleece originally made for the Army. The camouflage is “perfect for that Bush era, mid-2000s aesthetic,” says Max Theriot, a twenty-six-year-old self-described UCP enthusiast. Like “indie-sleaze” in more mainstream fashion, the revival of UCP feels consciously backward-looking and, at times, ironic.

That said, even the memory of the Iraq War itself has a pull for some. Instagram accounts like “Global Warfighters,” a kind of mood board account for photos of Western Special Operations Forces with tens of thousands of followers, often posts photos of UCP being worn by members of the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment during the early years of the global War on Terror. All wars, as they become history, are in danger of being romanticized, their harsh realities and mistakes forgotten, and the reappraisal of UCP by younger people feels like the canary in the coal mine of Iraq War nostalgia.

Focusing on the camouflage is a way to keep the focus on nuts and bolts, without having to reflect on the wider politics and controversies of the war. The 2003 invasion and subsequent war was anything but a more innocent time for the country—it feels insane to even suggest it. The war killed approximately 200,000 Iraqi civilians along with 4,492 American servicemen, and the country is far from settled now, twenty years on. But for young people coming of age today, whose engagement with the conflict has occurred mostly through pop culture and aesthetics, it can appear that way. “Growing up hearing the news at the time, playing some Call of Duty, UCP was also the uniform of the good guys,” says Munoz. “It felt like there was a clear bad guy, the terrorists in the Middle East, but now with all of that pretty much over, things kind of seem to be at a standstill.”