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Universal Failure

Universal Camouflage Pattern became a symbol of an unpopular war. Today, it’s being reappraised by those too young to remember the invasion of Iraq.

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.