Visual Deception

Camouflage in nature is the phenomena that animals, plants and organisms use to visually disguise themselves.  It is used by prey to help hide from predators and it is used by predators to help them conceal themselves as they stalk their prey (Laura Klappenbach, 2012). The methods used for camouflage in nature can be through natural evolution or instinctive behaviour. Two forms of evolutionary camouflage named procrypsis and Müllerian mimicry, can be compared with the forms of visual deception used by the U.S. military and the opposing Vietcong fighters during the Vietnam War. The Vietcong were a guerrilla force that fought against the United States and South Vietnam. The military use of camouflage is the practice or even considered as the art of concealment and visual deception in war. It is the means of defeating enemy observation by concealing position, personnel, equipment and movement. The modern form of camouflage is a surface based application that makes use of colours and shapes in order to disrupt an object’s outlines in order to avoid detection. France was the first nation to establish an official military pattern camouflage in 1915 which was painted on their uniforms. They were followed by the British, Italians, Germans and Americans (Leeji Db, 2009). Since then, camouflage has been adapted in many different ways to blend in to habitats and cultures. It can also be applied by changing or modifying one’s behaviour to prevent recognition of the true identity or the character of a person.

The two natural camouflage types in comparison with military use of camouflage are procrypsis and mimicry.

Tawny Frogmouth, Podargus Strigoides. (Photo1 by Thomas Knight, 2005)

The Tawny Frogmouth that can be seen in photo 1 is an Australian species of frogmouth that makes use of procrypsis. The Tawny Frogmouth is a type of bird found throughout the Australian mainland, Tasmania, southern New Guinea and they are masters of camouflage (Thomas Knight, 2011). Procrypsis is when animal, plant or organism use patterns and shades of colouring to concealing themselves from their enemies by blending in to their natural environment (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012).

(Left) Striped-Hyena, Hyaena hyaena by Arpit The Waders. (Right) Aardwolf, Proteles cristatus. (Photo2 by Dominik Käuferle)

Another phenomenon  of camouflage is Batesian mimicry which is evidenced by the two different species in photo 2. Batesian mimicry is when a harmless species has evolved to imitate the warning signals of a harmful species, therefore avoided equally by all their natural predators (The Free Dictionary 2012). The reverse effect of this phenomenon is called Müllerian mimicry. This is a method of survival that occurs when an unrelated or related species mimics the features of an unpalatable or poisonous species to avoid being eaten by its predators (Wickler. W, 1968). Since several species appear the same to the predator, it will prey on them all. This results to a loss of life that is spread out over several species, reducing the impact on each individual one. In the long term the species appears to be educating the predator that it is also unpalatable or poisonous by mimicking a species that genuinely is. (Rhett A, 2011).

Two butterflies utilize mimicry. (Photo3 by R. Butler)

Müllerian mimicry has two essential groups as seen in photo 3. The model is the original organism that does not alter and the mimic is the organism that adapts itself to mimic the model. The procrypsis camouflage and Müllerian mimicry used by these natural organisms has comparable similarities to the camouflage methods used by the U.S. army and the Vietcong guerrilla fighters during the Vietnam War. Procrypsis was the methods utilised by the U.S. military in order to blend in with the natural environment by adapting their uniforms with patterns and colour. The Vietcong made more use of camouflage techniques similar to Müllerian mimicry. Unlike the U.S. 1962 issued ERDL tropical combat uniforms (Eric H. Larson, 2012), the Vietcong had a variety of attires, but avoided clothes that looked like traditional combat uniforms. This made it difficult for the U.S. to know who exactly the enemy was (Kenneth E. Behring, 2004).

The Vietnam War was a period of conflict that took place over the borders of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The war involved several nations and lasted over the period of 1955 to 1975. It was between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of South Vietnam, supported by the United States and other anti-communist countries. The North Vietnamese government and Vietcong viewed the conflict as a colonial war, fought initially against France, backed by the U.S. and later against South Vietnam again backed by the U.S. The involvement of the U.S. was mainly to prevent South Vietnam falling into neighbouring communist powers. The troops grew from 16 000 at the end of the Kennedy Administration, to 184,000 by the end of 1965 as U.S. commitment grew. It reached its peak of 537,000 in 1968 (Dennis M, 2002). The capture of Saigon by the Vietnam People’s Army in April 1975 marked the end of the war and U.S. troops were evacuated.

A NAVY Seal preparing for a mission with a South Vietnamese Provincial Reconnaissance Unit. (Photo4 from The Illustrated History of the Vietnam War by Chris McNab and Andy Wiest)

In photo 4 we can see a NAVY Seal preparing for a mission in collaboration with a South Vietnamese provincial reconnaissance unit. The South Vietnamese soldier in the front is wearing the first U.S. camouflage designed in 1942 by Norvell Gillespie. He was also the horticulturist and garden editor of Sunset, Better House and Gardens publications and the San Francisco Chronicle. It was nicknamed “frogskin” by many GI’s. The pattern consisted of five shades of green on a light brown background (Eric H. Larson, 2012). The other two men in this image are wearing a camouflage pattern designed specifically for the South East Asian jungle by the US Army Engineer Research and Development Laboratory and therefore named the ERDL pattern. The headgear on the soldier in the middle is used to disrupt the outlines of the human upper body. His face is painted with two different colours of face paint. These green and loam face paint was manufactures for the U.S. Army by the well known makeup producer, Revlon (RT-Habu, 2008).

A U.S. Marine immersed in the jungle during a combat patrol. (Photo5 from The Illustrated History of the Vietnam War by Chris McNab and Andy Wiest)

U.S. Marines waiting for the CS gas that was dumped on a North Vietnamese stronghold south of Quang Tri to clear before moving up. (Photo6, Vietnam, A Visual Encyclopaedia, p96)

In photo 6 it can be observed that U.S. Marines are camouflaging their helmets with vegetation to break the round outline that can easily be detected by an enemy sharp shooter. The use of plants to camouflage an individual was often used by all parties involved in the conflict.

(Left) Photo7 Vietnam Helicopter Uniform. (Right) Photo8 U.S. M-1 Steel Helmets.

The camouflage pattern that appears in photo7 is widely known as the South Vietnamese tiger stripe camouflage pattern and was very popular with US military personnel during the war. The pattern was utilised primarily by elite units such as US Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and Marine Reconnaissance Helicopter crew and was a symbols of high status. It was based on the French “tenue du leopard” or lizard design and the majority of the tiger patterns worn by US military personnel were made in South Vietnam. Many different styles of tiger stripe emerged between 1964 and 1975. Photo 8 shows the “United States Marine Corp wine leaf pattern” consisting of large overlapping different shades of green leaf shapes with brown twigs on a pale green background. The pattern was developed to blend in with the vegetation of Vietnam in 1953 but was only used as a helmet cover in 1959 (Eric H. Larson, 2012).

A hand painted camouflage pattern on a command RAG (River Assault Group) boat named “Commandment” is preparing for a river assault. (Photo9 from the Stanley Kubrick Archive)

The patterns painted on the RAG boat in photo 9 was meant to blend in with the palm trees on the river banks. It was not very effective when the boat was moving because of the wake it left on the water and the noise generated by the engines they were using at the time. The camouflage patterns were more effective when the RAG boats were stationary or docked. It became an integral part of the techniques to patrol the rivers and coastal war in Indo-China and Vietnam. All these camouflaging methods used by the U.S. Military have clear similarities to the procrypsis phenomena found with natural organisms. The means to blend into the Vietnamese vegetation and landscape by applying shapes, colours and patterns on the surfaces of their uniforms and equipment.

Vietcong guerrilla fighters moving from their hiding place. (Photo10 from the Stanley Kubrick archive)

In the above photo 10 we observe two Vietcong guerrilla fighters gathering supplies from a village near their hideout. The Vietcong was the military arm of the National Liberation Front. They were also known as the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF). Established at the end of 1960, the Vietcong was created by the North Vietnamese communist rulers to fight in South Vietnam. In the early 60’s they grew rapidly and by 1964 they totalled over 30,000 soldiers. They wore no uniforms and dressed in the same type of clothing as the local peasants. They were known to blend in with the peasants and farmers when their missions were complete. The Vietcong would regularly launch hit-and-run attacks on government military outposts and opposing U.S. troops. The Vietcong guerrillas also played a primary role in the Tet offensive in early 1968, where they attacked villages, towns and U.S. military strongholds (Peter L, 1997). The Vietnamese peasant villagers were not known to give support to the Vietcong but the Vietcong tactic was to give captured land to them and they often promised to protect their village from attack. Farmers lived in constraint fear that the U.S. army would take their land away from them for good. This was said to be misleading propaganda to provoke mistrust and suspicion towards the U.S. military. (Carroll L, 2012)

A Vietcong fighter using the cover of a village structure. (Photo11 from the Stanley Kubrick Archive)

In Photo 11 from the special Stanley Kubrick Archive we see a Vietcong soldier wearing the iconic, black shirt and trousers sometimes referred to by the U.S. as V.C pyjamas. This was not traditional Vietnamese sleeping wear, but more the result of U.S. troop mockery. In the 1948 Israeli invasion of Jerusalem it was reported that Palestinians and some of the Jordanians soldiers who had not yet surrendered, threw away their uniforms and changed into striped pyjamas to pretend to be civilians if captured. (McCullin D, 2002) This was not the case of the clothes worn by the Vietcong as the black clothes they were known to wear were also worn by most Vietnamese civilians.

A Vietcong guerrilla fighter standing guard at the gate of his village. (Photo12 from the Stanley Kubrick Archive)

Here in photo 12 we can see a Vietcong fighter, dressed like a normal villager or farmer. The success of the Vietcong and NVA in winning the Hearts and Minds of the local peasants in Vietnam was important in the outcome of the War. They fought with a determined effort to reunify Vietnam and drive out foreign invaders. The Guerrilla tactics were able to wear down the U.S. Army and prevent them from using their superior technological power.

U.S army troops are detaining Vietnamese villagers that are suspected of being Vietcong guerrilla fighters. (Photo13 from the Stanley Kubrick Archive)

In photo 13, Vietnamese civilians in the same clothes that were known to be worn by the Vietcong can be seen taken away from their village. It is not clear if these people were involved in harbouring Vietcong guerrillas. Scenes like these occurred more often after the Tet Offensive that took place on the 30th of January 1968 as certain U.S. troops grew frustrated by the way guerrilla warfare was fought. Less than three months after the Tet offensive occurred, a small U.S. infantry unit under the command of Lieut. William Laws Calley killed 567 unarmed Vietnamese men, women and children in Truongan as they swept through the Southern Vietnamese villages (Henry K, 1968).

(Left) Photo14, Viet Cong “Black Pyjama” Uniform & Rice Paddy Hat. (Right) Photo16, Viet Cong uniform, web belt, and hat.

Vietcong propaganda photo.

Villagers suspected of being Vietcong guerrillas are detained by U.S. troops. (Photo17 from the Stanley Kubrick Archive)

In photo 17 we can see more Vietnamese civilians being detained by U.S. troops in order to filter out the Vietcong.

Vietcong guerrilla fighters crossing a river with fishing boats taken from farmers. (Photo18 from the Stanley Kubrick Archive)

All of these techniques of camouflage have striking similarities to Müllerian mimicry that insects use to avoid being prayed on. The “mimic” in this comparison being the Vietcong guerrilla fighters and the “model” being the Vietnamese civilians. The problem that the use of Müllerian mimicry created for the Vietnamese civilians is that it became very difficult for the U.S. troops to differentiate between the civilians and the guerrillas. This might give reason why so many civilians died at the hands of the U.S. troops. Did the Vietcong know that the U.S. troops will be acting like this? Did they take advantage of U.S. troop’s behaviour to spread propaganda amongst the Vietnamese people? On Friday the 6th of September 1968, the Vietcong veteran Cu-Chi regiment used civilian women and children as a human shield to storm a company of U.S. paratroops killing 33 soldiers (The Morning Record, 1968). The methods of camouflage used by the Vietcong were cowardly but also very effective. Similar to the insects using Müllerian mimicry, the Vietcong used the greater population of Vietnam to reduce loss of lives of its own kind, benefitting themselves in the long term.  Both the U.S. Army and the Vietcong were successful in utilising camouflage but it was only the Vietcong that had the opportunity to make use of Müllerian mimicry which gave them the upper hand in battle and in winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.


By Armand Hough

MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography 2012

University of the Arts London

Project Unit 2.2


Reference Index

-Laura Klappenbach, Guide. Available at: ( 2012

-Leeji Db, The History of Modern Camouflage, Designboom, 29 March 2009. Available at: (

-Encyclopaedia Britannica, Merriam-Webster, Incorporated 2012. Available at:

-Thomas Knight, Daily Organisms Blog, 27 July 2011. Available at:

-The Free Dictionary, 2012. Available at:

-Wickler, W. (1968) Mimicry in Plants and Animals (Translated from the German) McGraw-Hill, New York. ISBN 0-07-070100-8 Especially chapters 7 and 8.

-Rhett A. Butler, Rainforest Diversity, Mongabay 2011. Available at:

-Eric H. Larson, US Army Uniforms, Camopidia, 3 July 2012. Available at:

-Kenneth E. Behring, The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, May 2004. Available at:

-Dennis M. Simon, Americanizing the War August 2002. Available at: (

-RT-Habu, Military Photos Forum, Vietnam, Available at:

-Peter Leuhusen, Vietnam Pix, May 15th, 1997. Available at:

-Carroll L, Pentrehafod School, Pentremawr Road, Hafod,Swansea. 12 May 2012. Available at:

-Don McCullin, Unreasonable Behaviour 2002

-Henry Kamm, The New York Times, 16 March 1968, Page 1, Vietnamese Say G.I.’s Slew 567 in Town

-The Morning Record – Sep 7, 1968, Page 1. Available at:,653238

Photo Index

-Photo1 by Thomas Knight, Wikipedia Photo Archive, 30 Sep 2005

-Photo2 by Dominik Käuferle, The Jungle Store Blog, 8 Jun 2005

-Photo3 by Rhett Butler, Rainforests Mongabay, 1994

-Photo4 from The Illustrated History of the Vietnam War by Chris McNab and Andy Wiest, p116

-Photo5 from The Illustrated History of the Vietnam War by Chris McNab and Andy Wiest, p86

-Photo6 Phillip Gutzman, Vietnam, A Visual Encyclopaedia, p96

-Photo7 VHPA Museum, billy’s post, April 2011

-Photo8 Vietnam Era Marine’s M-1 Helmet, Military Headgear Online Shop

-Photo9 from the Stanley Kubrick Archive, sk-16-2-1-2-5_box3_007

-Photo10 from the Stanley Kubrick Archive, sk-16-2-1-2-5_box3_0011

-Photo11 from the Stanley Kubrick Archive, sk-16-2-1-2-5_box3_0017

-Photo12 from the Stanley Kubrick Archive, sk-16-2-1-2-5_box3_008.jpg

-Photo13 from the Stanley Kubrick Archive, sk-16-2-1-2-5_box4_005

-Photo14 from, lot number 488

-Photo15 from the Sipsey Street Irregulars blog, May 23, 2009

-Photo16 from Flickr,, September 30 2004

-Photo17 from the Stanley Kubrick Archive, sk-16-2-1-2-5_box4_003

-Photo18 from the Stanley Kubrick Archive, sk-16-2-1-2-5_box3_0016


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About I AM Photography

Born in sunny South Africa I am an adventure seeker with a taste for beauty and good pictures. I have been in the industry for a couple of years now and learned my tricks from the best.

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