Saturday, December 4, 2010

Camouflage as Hide and Seek

According to what I’ve been able to find, Reginald John Farrer (1880-1921) was an accomplished British gardener, writer and botanist, who wrote a half-dozen books on plants and related subjects, notably My Rock Garden (1907). During World War I, that Reginald Farrer was apparently living in Asia (China, Tibet, Burma), so it seems unlikely that it was the same person who was sent to France by the British Department of Information to write about life in the trenches. The wartime letters of this latter Farrer (is it the same person?) are highly unusual views of the Front and were published as The Void of War: Letters from Three Fronts. London: Constable and Company; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918. They include this lengthy passage in which he talks about camouflage (pp. 67-68)—

The real thing about the human side of the war is the sheer fun of it. In certain aspects the war is nothing but a glorious, gigantic game of hide and seek—camouflage is nothing else. It is not only the art of making things invisible, but also of making them look like something else. Even the art of inconspicuousness is subtle and exciting. What glory it must be to splash your tents and lorries all over with wild waggles of orange and emerald and ochre and umber, in a drunken chaos, until you have produced a perfect futurist masterpiece which one would think would pierce the very vaults of heaven with its yells. However, as pandemonium produces numbness in the ear, so I suppose a Lost-Dog’s-Home-at-Battersea in chromatics does deaden visibility in a dun-colored ensemble.

But disguise is an even higher branch of the art: you go on to make everything look like something else. Hermit crabs and caddis worms become our masters. Down from the sky peers the microscopic midget of a Boche plane: he sees a tree—but it may be a gun: he sees a gun—but it may be only a tree. And so the game of hide and seek goes on, in a steady acceleration of ingenuity on both sides, till at last the only logical outcome will be to have no camouflage at all. You will simply put out your big guns fair and square in the open, because nobody will ever believe, by that time,  that anything really is what it looks like. As far as the guns go, the war is developing into a colossal fancy dress ball, with immunity for the prize: wolves in sheep’s clothing are nothing to these gentle shepherdesses of the countryside. The more important they are, the more meekly do they shrink from notice under dominos of boughs or sods, or strawberry-netting tagged over with fluffets of green and brown rags. And sometimes they lurk under some undiscoverable knoll in a coppice, and do their barking through a little hole from which you would only expect rabbits, not shells. It must be the most endless joy to go on planning these disguises. One would lie awake at night wondering how to make one's gun look like a dog kennel, or a dog kennel conceal a gun. But, of course, the individual camouflage is even more exciting yet.

…And, of course, this fun sense of his [the individual] has full play in this new warfare. It is all "I spy," on terms of life and death: the other fellow must not spy, or you hear of it instantly, through your skull. Think how it must sharpen up the civilization-sodden intelligence of a man, to have to depend for dear life on noticing every movement in a bush and every opening in a bank. Now we are getting back with one hand what we had lost by giving up the other to machinery. We are growing to make the best of both worlds, the mechanical and the human, without giving up our mental balance by relying exclusively on either. I only wish I could give you an idea of the devices and ingenuities that these grown-up hide-and-seekers have elaborated. All sorts of ludicrously simple things, the more ludicrously simple the better.

Every blank-faced trench rampart of sandbags has its hidden eyes—eyes perfectly wide awake all the time, and winking at you wickedly with a rifle. But for your life you could not spot them, until you had had weeks of training, and learned the real meaning of every tiny unevenness or discoloration or bit of darkness. And even then you have to learn to guess which of these is harmless—so as to blind the others with your own fire. Or there is an innocent, untidy, earthy bank, a dump of old boots and tins and bottles and teapots without spouts. But any one of those forlorn oddments may also be the eyelid of a rifle. Only you do not know which—until you have found out! In the beginning of the war you did not find out. Everything was neat and tidy and civilized and well arranged: so you merely got killed.

It has taken us long experience to reconquer the primitive shifts and cunning of our ancestors. What would have seemed utterly childish to any soldier a few years since, is now his essential wisdom. You are bound to have eyes in every eyelash, and a wireless at the end of every nerve, if you are to come out a prize winner in this game of hide and seek. Even in this, the most mechanical and vast of all wars, it is the individual red Indian who ultimately wins.

They do not go to Napoleon and Wellington nowadays for inspiration, they go to the praying mantis and the leaf butterflies. Look at those trees in that avenue—that third tree in particular, that projecting bough, now botanically and aesthetically accurate. All is motionlessly silent: rural peace pervades the whole world. And, if you meditate on this a tithe of a second too long, out of that bough, most improperly and unexpectedly, there comes a little streak of fire through your heart. You must not put your trust in the tranquility of nature nowadays, any more than in princes or any child of man. Who knows whether that molehill really is a molehill? That corn stook among the others, does it really look quite as a normal corn-stook should? What a scandalously untidy sight that heap of potato peelings and old sacks!—until suddenly it shoots.

I tell you, it is wonderful and fearful, this game, in its fascination—keeping you on razor's edge and razor's edge of vital uncertainty. It is the very apex of sport; it makes big game shooting into a croquet tournament. All the time you are playing for your life with eyes and brains for counters. It must be a potent illumination and stimulant for the human mind—which five years ago would almost have wanted a policeman to help it across the street, or a moving stairway to get it up to the second floor of Harrod's…