Research Methodology for Camouflage Uniform Collectors

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copyright 2013 by Eric H. Larson

I have developed a specific academic methodology to apply towards verifying the usage of certain camouflage uniforms and patterns by different nations of the world. Following years during which collectors and historians settled for rumor, word-of-mouth and hearsay to identify items within various collections, it became abundantly clear that some type of methodology must be applied to a body of research as large as that presented on this site. Visitors should keep in mind that methodologies of varying reliability abound within the community of militaria collectors in general, but it is quite seldom that genuine academic principles are applied to the study of a particular collecting subject and, when they are, it is usually by individuals rather than by communities with a particular sub-field of interest. I mention this only because the methodology espoused here may seem strict in some sense when compared with what passes for methodology within the greater community of military collectors, particularly on public forums which as a rule have absolutely no requirements or expectations for academic method.

The specific methodology our contributing editors employ is generally utilized whenever a question arises as to whether a particular country, military or paramilitary unit has utilized a specific camouflage pattern as yet undocumented (or scantily documented). With regards to what otherwise might be construed as “common knowledge” information, we naturally have not felt it necessary to satisfy the requirements set down here (although in most cases it would be very easy to do so). Examples of common knowledge data would be the use of the m81 “woodland” camouflage pattern by the United States of America, DPM by the United Kingdom, or flecktarn by the Federal Republic of Germany. In all other cases, where the body of common knowledge cannot support a specific conclusion, we have applied this methodology to determine what will be featured on this site, and what will not.

Although we have utilized both primary and secondary research in verifying the usage of different camouflage patterns by military and paramilitary units around the world, it should be emphasized that the majority of our research stems from primary sources. There are several reasons for this, but the most important of these is the fact that, historically, most previously published information on the use of military camouflage patterns has relied on very tenuous documentation, a substantial portion of which has later been proven incorrect. This can be attributed not so much to a lack of standards by the individuals responsible for such publications, but more accurately to the significant dearth of research material that was available on this subject fifteen, twenty or thirty years ago. We are blessed today with a wealth of available research material thanks to the increase in international communications brought about by the internet, and this has been responsible for greatly improving both the quality and quantity of available data in this particular field of study. There nevertheless remain large gaps in information, which is one reason why a methodology is so essential.

As mentioned in the introductory section of this site, our primary research is generally drawn from the following sources: official government or military documents, photographic documentation from primary sources, and physical specimens (with verifiable provenance). Secondary research is drawn from published material, and unpublished (usually anecdotal) material from military or academic sources that can be verified. In very few instances, inferences are made based on unsubstantiated data, provided they follow logically based on other data gathered via our methodology, in order to reach some sort of conclusion. However, in most instances if there is not enough data to reach a conclusion, the subject remains unverified.

The basic method that we apply in order to verify the usage of a particular pattern or style of uniform by a specific nation or unit can be called the “rule of three.” This requires that at least three pieces of separate documentation are provided for each individual case. Although our preference lies with having at least two pieces of photographic documentation (with suitably verifiable sources), in some instances we also draw inferences from specific data that can be gleaned from a physical specimen, or from a first hand account. Suitable examples of this type of documentation are:

  • A photograph of the uniform in question worn by military or paramilitary personnel in which the national identity or unit affiliation can be clearly established based on details in the photo.
  • A physical specimen of a uniform in which generally accepted nomenclature or reliable provenance identifies the article as intended for a specific end-user. Note: the term “generally accepted” implies that the identification marks are either commonly known, or that they cannot be readily questioned as being reproductions, facsimiles or outright fantasy pieces.
  • Official government or military published material in which the uniform or pattern in question is identified as being used by the nation, or by one of its official military units.

With regard to the use of photographs, by far our largest body of research material, it must be emphasized that despite the abundance of available material online, not all sources have the same veracity. For example, in conducting research one must always apply careful principles of discrimination to verify that the particular caption or identifying text is accurate (assuming any such caption even exists). It is especially important to apply this critical method to combat photography sourced via inexperienced or mainstream journalists that have no military background, and can easily make mistakes in attempting to identify a particular combatant or unit being photographed. Major news agencies are especially guilty of such errors, but even military news agencies have been known to make mistakes, and one should always examine the details of a photograph to ensure they do not contradict the identification provided for it. In cases where the national or unit affiliation of combatants in a photograph cannot be verified, the photograph should not be relied upon as a piece of documentation simply based on inexpert hearsay.

Another matter to bear in mind regarding photographs is that multiple shots taken on the same day of the same unit or soldier do not constitute multiple pieces of evidence. Ten photographs taken of a unit on parade on the same day indicate only that this unit wore a particular style of camouflage on that specific day; they give no indication whether usage continued before or afterwards with any degree of consistency. Similarly, photographs taken of a single soldier or combatant (particularly as concerns insurgents) should always be backed up with subsequent data from a completely different source and time, in order to verify that the instance was not simply an example of a one-off episode. Insurgents and even members of some armed forces do often privately source combat uniforms that are not issued by a government or organization, and it is easy (although naive) to presume such usage extends beyond the single piece of documentary evidence discovered in a solo photograph.

Physical specimens can be very tricky, particularly if they do not feature any useful nomenclature by which to identify them. Although many first world nations have the resources and budgets to clearly identify the war materiel used by their armed forces, the vast majority of nations do not go to the trouble of doing so. Military uniforms employed around the world are by and large obtained in large quantities from the cheapest sources possible (generally large Asian manufacturing corporations), and rarely have any identifying marks on them other than perhaps size and washing instructions. In such cases, when faced with an unidentified uniform, one must make extremely careful comparisons with verified examples from the same nation, being particularly cognizant of minor details such as uniform construction, style of buttons, feel and weight of the fabric, etc. A uniform that can be verified as having original badging (in itself a separate and very intricate field of study) can serve very well as a piece of documentation, but the researcher must keep in mind that collectors and airsoft enthusiasts are notoriously guilty of adding any number of insignia to uniforms which may later pass through many hands and ultimately develop the appearance of a “combat worn” article. Extensive knowledge of national insignia and proper placement is incredibly useful in this regard, in order to avoid coming to an erroneous conclusion about a particular article’s genuineness.

Official government documentation can generally be relied upon to be accurate, provided it is truly official nomenclature and not simply media that is published by a government agency. Unfortunately such resources are largely unavailable to the average researcher without connections to a specific government agency or the intelligence community. Nevertheless, this source does occasionally provide adequate documentation to verify the use of a pattern or uniform.

With regards to secondary research, one must always be critical of any source that cannot be vetted with absolute reliability (which is almost everything). Most published reference material, while wonderful to look at and see on a library shelf, cannot usually be relied upon to be accurate unless it draws upon a substantial body of work itself (i.e. has extensive references or bibliography). Otherwise, we are simply putting complete faith in the author’s research method, which may or may not be academically sound. Take, for example, and abundance of uniform books in publication, such as those addressing the Vietnam War, special operations units, or, in our own case, camouflage uniforms. Few, if any, of these publications provide accompanying period photographic documentation to substantiate the lovely color photographs of models wearing various configurations of uniform pieces and field equipment. Original photographs are generally the only valuable resources to be found in published material, except in the odd case where the author has actually done extensive research pertaining to uniforms, development programs, and the like. In my experience, these publications are very few and far between.

Finally we come to the subject of unpublished material, which in general should be limited to academic or military sources, although cannot help but extend to additional sources if you are an average collector. Data that has been collected by a reliable military or civilian contact can generally be relied upon as long as the information is purely informational in nature and is not providing substantiation for the contact’s personal gain. People will, unfortunately, create the most extensive ruses they can in order to benefit financially or otherwise, so please do not be so naïve as to trust the opinion of a dealer, seller or trade partner just because they say it is so. It is one thing if you have built a long-standing relationship with a person that you have come to trust, and quite another to take the word of an online auction seller with dozens or even hundreds of items for sale at any given time who stands to benefit by describing his uniform as rare or exotic.

Specimens that have first-hand provenance are reliable as documentation only if the veracity of the information can be established. Furthermore, even if an individual is considered reliable and honest, as researchers we cannot rely strictly on memory if it has been clouded by the long passage of time. Because human memory is supremely fallible, the more time that has passed from the period in which the item was obtained, the less reliable the recollection about it, except in rare instances where the veteran or individual in question had the foresight to maintain notes or a very particular story about the item itself. A uniform, for example, obtained directly from a foreign colleague or captured from an enemy combatant is likely to have strong emotional-psychological connections that will affect long term memory retention. Secondary provenance such as, “this was my uncle’s uniform” or “my grandfather obtained this uniform in Vietnam” should always be substantiated when possible by either polite interrogation to establish the credibility of the history, or, preferably, substantiation through access to additional documentation (paperwork, photographs, old uniforms, or additional items brought back from the place of deployment). Tertiary provenance, no matter how plausible, is very tenuous. Stories of this nature are typically found when purchasing something from a dealer or online seller who “obtained it from an estate” or from the widow of a veteran. Unless documentation can be provided for these items, such claims are simply rumor and have no value as academic method. (See above comments about online sellers and dealers).

A word should also be voiced concerning the veracity of two of the most common sources that modern collectors of camouflage uniforms use as references: online forums and personal collection websites. Concerning forums, it has been my experience that the majority of such sites are fraught with inaccuracies, rumor, hearsay, bogus information and outright fantasy. This is not to say a certain percentage of information found on any given forum will not be absolutely reliable and accurate. Rather, it simply must be established that despite their claims the primary function of most forums is as a place to socialize with others sharing a similar interest. As such, while such social sites may have a small percentage of academically-minded collectors that take their hobby very seriously and whose expertise is not only reliable but extensive, the vast majority of members more than likely have only a passing interest in the subject. Keep in mind also that personality disorders, both mild and severe, permeate our society and are particularly common among segments of society that seek primary socialization through indirect human contact (i.e. via the internet), and those with unusual fixations of which collecting can certainly be classified. One should be particularly wary of individuals that repeatedly show signs of narcissism (an arrogant concern for their own reputation and/or recognition when undeserved), histrionic disorder (those that constantly seek approval of others and are extra sensitive to criticism) or delusional types (the classic Walter Mitty) and those who get a sense of pride and recognition simply by being associated with people that have risky occupations such as the military. There are probably a higher percentage of these personality types among collectors than among the general population, which in turn leads to a much more dysfunctional social microcosm within forums that are collecting-minded. Furthermore, as social networks, many forums also suffer from “diplomatic overcompensation” in which members are more concerned with not hurting another person’s feelings (or simply contributing to a “fun” atmosphere) than they are in establishing accurate information and pointing out fake items or inaccurate statements. Lastly, it has been my experience that collecting forums with an international theme generally also suffer from granting automatic expert status to individuals from a particular country simply because they show an interest in the military traditions of their native land. The same can be said of forums that grant such status (or administrative status) to members that have a high number of contributions to the site. Simply having citizenship in a particular nation, or spending an inordinate amount of your time on a particular forum, does not make you an expert in anything. For these reasons (and others) researchers should always treat information gleaned from such sites with particular scrutiny and apply the same academic principles as you would to any other source.

Regarding personal collection websites, the need for caution is even greater, although for fewer and more specific reasons. The ease with which anyone can create such a display site is considerable, and naturally there is no requirement to vet any of the data presented on a personal site. In other words, these sites rely entirely on the capabilities of the individual that created them to be: 1) well-researched, 2) accurate, and 3) informative. Much like forum sections where collectors share their most recent acquisitions, it is my opinion that the vast majority of these sites exist primarily for the ego gratification of having others congratulate the owner on his latest find. This is all well and good, of course, but as a source for reference or research purposes the usefulness is extremely limited. One must first understand the pressure to expand that builds once a site of this nature has been created. Collectors as a rule are already quite vulnerable to competitiveness, but those that choose to display their entire collections to the public can easily succumb to the greater pressure to keep acquiring more expensive and exotic items. This eventually leads to the “wishful thinking” mindset, in which a collector convinces himself (either consciously or unconsciously) that a recent acquisition is of some exotic nature, whether or not any dependable provenance or reliable documentation exists to back up such a claim. Although a small percentage of collectors have the willpower to resist classification until suitable documentation exists to satisfy commonly accepted academic standards, there is a high percentage of individuals out there that would rather be seen as having a huge and varied collection. My advice to those that use such sites as references is to be highly critical of anything featured that cannot be easily verified, and never to rely on someone with an expansive collection as necessarily having high academic or research standards. In other words, verify by your own independent work before using such data as reference material.

This concludes the section on methodology and research philosophy, as it applies to the Camopedia site.