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In Plain Sight

Ann Marlowe

When I began Dazzled and Deceived I was disappointed to see that I’d have to read five chapters on mimicry in the natural world before I got to my particular interest, military camouflage in the First and Second World Wars. Five chapters on insects? What motivated me to pick up Dazzled was the question of why the world’s militaries rather suddenly developed an interest in disguising themselves around the time of World War I. 

But I found myself caught up in British nature writer (and poetry editor) Peter Forbes’s account of the late 19th-century fascination with mimicry and the way it influenced Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The late 19th century was the golden age of mimicry, and some imitative species discovered in the early 19th century, like living stone plants, received more attention a hundred years later.

Dazzled and Deceived


Mimicry and Camouflage
by Peter Forbes
Yale, 304 pp., $27.50

Are there reasons beyond biology why this might be so? I wish Forbes had pushed harder to tease out the intellectual history and cultural context in which interest in mimicry came to the fore. Perhaps part of the answer is the invention of photography and the divergence of painting from pure representation? But Forbes, the author of The Gecko’s Foot (2005), is more interested in nature. He explains how mimicry raised the ultimate philosophical questions in Victorian biology: What are variations, hybrids, and species? What is the role of warning coloration versus sexual selection in evolution? Occasional mutations of harmless butterflies that looked like neighboring toxic species were favored by natural selection, and eventually evolved into distinct mimic species. In some places, several different toxic species all looked alike.

In many cases, good explanations had to await the discovery of DNA. Some mysteries are still being unraveled. I never knew, for instance, that insects see beyond the color spectrum we can see, all the way to the ultraviolet. In ultraviolet light, the Australian white crab spider is highly visible to bees, and flowers where it perches seem more brilliant and enticing. But local bees are catching on to the game and avoiding super-white flowers. That’s evolution in action. Or consider that mimetic butterflies inherit a mating preference for others who look like them. The spinning-out of this particular story raises fundamental issues about what a species is. 

Forbes has convinced me that, without a grounding in the natural origins of human-designed camouflage, I’d have a superficial understanding of the intellectual history of this aspect of warfare. Knowing that concealment strategies in nature were all the rage in late 19th-century biology, it’s not surprising to learn that several thinkers simultaneously came up with the idea of disguising ships from attack. More interesting still, the strategies these men advocated for ship camouflage often derived from their theories about how concealment worked in nature.

The most important camoufleur was a puritanical, obsessive New England painter, Abbott Handerson Thayer. The eponymous Thayer’s Law refers to countershading, “the gradation between the back and the belly of an animal.” Thayer saw countershading everywhere in nature, and warning coloration nowhere, which influenced his military ideas. When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, he advised the Navy on disguising ships (although it wasn’t done), and in 1902, he patented the idea of applying countershadingupward facing parts darker, downward facing parts whiteto naval vessels. Thayer also identified what would come to be known as disruptive coloration, which was applied in World War I as “dazzle” painting.

As Forbes explains disruptive coloration:

By breaking the shape of the creature into large, seemingly random patches of colour, the characteristic outline of the creature can to some extent be obscured. As humans are large creatures, and their artifacts often larger still, this principle is more important in human camouflage than attempts at total invisibility.

The Scottish zoologist John Graham Kerr had noticed in 1895 that the then-standard battleship gray for ships “falls short of what is attained by nature” by way of disguise. In September 1914 he wrote to Winston Churchill, first lord of the Admiralty, about his method for disguising ships, and his ideas were consideredbut eventually the navy decided that gray was still the best option given the varying times of day, degrees of light, and times of year with which ships must contend. 

A third figure, an English marine painter named Norman Wilkinson, apparently without knowledge of camouflage in nature, also advocated breaking up the outline of ships by painting them in black and white stripes. A lifelong sailor, he’d joined the Royal Navy at the outbreak of World War I and, by 1917, was bitten by the “dazzle” bug as well.

Each had slightly different goals: Wilkinson hoped to make ships harder to hit by torpedos when sighted by submarines; Kerr thought in terms of avoiding gun attack; Thayer thought white made ships nearly invisible (or made icebergs invisible at night, as the Titanic crew discovered). These goals would be debated after the war, when Kerr and Wilkinson competed to be known as the originator of dazzle; but it was Norman Wilkinson, charismatic and socially skilled, who was tasked by the navy to set up a camo unit.

One of the painters Wilkinson recruited was Edward Wadsworth, a British vorticist. I happened to see two of his black-and-white World War I-era woodcuts of dazzle ships (“Dock Scene” and “Liverpool Shipping”) in an exhibit in Miami’s Wolfsonian Museum while reading Forbes’s book and was struck by the way dazzle seemed so dated, so of its time. Exuberant Vorticist evocations of what then was experienced as modernity, they are now as obviously picturesque as Canalettos.

Forbes is clear that dazzle was almost as much a cultural artifact as a useful military tactic. Ship camouflage didn’t turn out to be very effective: In a Royal Navy study of the 2,367 ships that were painted with dazzle, it was found that more were attacked and more lost or damaged, but slightly fewer of these were sunk. So the usefulness of dazzle was inconclusive, although an American study of 1,256 camouflaged ships showed slightly better results for dazzle. But then, as the Israeli military theorist Martin van Creveld puts it, “In any particular kind of war, the meaning of ‘victory’ is decided as much by conventiontacit or explicitas it is by actual physical results.“ 

By the time of the Great War, camouflage was in the zeitgeistwhether or not it worked. Forbes points out the “connection between disruptive coloration and cubism’s breaking up of the outline into facets.” But Thayer, Wilkinson, and Kerr, at least in Forbes’s account, made nothing of it. It was Picasso, in Gertrude Stein’s famous testimony, who noted the link, reacting to a camouflaged truck in Paris at the start of the war by claiming, “Yes it is we who made it, that is cubism.”

Forbes also makes a novel point about cubism and camouflage:

The tendency towards colour for colour’s sake, so notable in many of these [avant-garde] movements, was reversed in cubism. The palette was, more or less entirely, muddy greens and brownsearth colours, camouflage colours.

Interestingly enough, while ships and gun emplacements were painted with camouflage or disruptive designs, only snipers wore camo in World War I
and the general run of combatants were not garbed in camo, even in World War II. (Part of the reason is that it was hard to mass-produce.) Abbott Thayer was an early proponent of disguising military uniforms, harassing the War Office on the subject; but the snipers’ uniforms worn after 1916 were derived from Scottish deerstalkers’ gillies!

Oddly enough, Forbes doesn’t cite a 2002 book by Roy Behrens, False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage. Behrens discusses the use of camo in the two World Wars, with profuse illustrations and some fascinating discussions of modern art that go beyond Forbes’s examples. 

Mimicry in flora and fauna may be innately fascinating to humans because we are mimics from babyhood. And mimicry is related to mimesis, representation, the source of all human communication, art, and learning. Louis Menand wrote recently that “[Marcel] Duchamp eliminated the element of imitation in art, and [Andy] Warhol imitated him.” It’s an insight that resonates more fully after reading Dazzled and Deceived.

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