07 April 2011


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 08 April 2011

"Camouflage is a game we all like to play, but our secrets are as surely revealed by what we want to seem to be as by what we want to conceal." J. Russell Lynes

The human form is distinctive--oddly, though of nature, we stand in stark contrast to nature; especially against the skyline and in the wide-open. And due to our subconscious mind's keen ability to detect the human form, hiding in nature--in the wide-open--is not impossible but success does require conscious, active measures e.g. clothing harmonious with the environment, break-up of the face and silhouette, altering body positions, etc.--whatever it takes to "disappear" within the surroundings. Marines are pretty good at it. Marine scout snipers are great at it.

No matter where and how trying to hide, good, effective camouflage is an art.

Detecting good, effective camouflage is likewise an art.

Detecting poor camouflage--think sore thumbs--is not so difficult.

A couple of weeks ago a van full of miscreants, clad in U. S. Marine Corps camouflage uniforms, tried to sneak--in the wide-open--into our country. An alert Border Agent, who happened to be a Marine, noticed some oddities. The van and its hastily altered license plate did not pass the first sniff test. Then he looked closer at the "Marines" and asked some simple questions--wrong answers, in English and Spanish, ended the ruse. The camouflage, strictly superficial, did not work so well. Of course not, it would take much more than a coat of lipstick--metaphorically speaking or not--to charm or fool a real Marine.

But how do you hide a human, a Marine colonel--taller and bigger than average--in uniform, in plain view amidst other humans (Marines in uniform and civilians), who happens to be the one everyone is looking for?

Is it possible?

Mr. Webster defines...

Camouflage n 1 : the disguising of military equipment with paint, nets, or foliage; also : the disguise itself  2 : deceptive behavior -- camouflage vb

Deception n 1 : the act of deceiving 2 : the fact or condition of being deceived 3 : Fraud, Trick

Disguise vb 1 : to change the appearance of so as to conceal the identity or to resemble another 2 : Hide, Conceal

Disguise n 1 : clothing put on to conceal one's identity or counterfeit another's 2 : an outward appearance that hides what something really is

Illusion n 1 : a  mistaken idea : Misconception 2 : a misleading visual image: also : Hallucination

So there is camouflage, deception, disguise, and illusion as means for hiding something or someone--even a Marine colonel--in plain view.

Harry Houdini, Criss Angel, David Blaine, and David Copperfield are among the more well-known and popular modern masters of camouflage, disguise, and deception. The latter three, still alive, are master illusionists--they can do and hide the obvious right before our eyes. How? By distracting. Their's sleight-of-hand showmanship at its best. Their's a skill--a craft. They, like Marine scout snipers, masters of camouflage.

To camouflage, deception, disguise, and illusion add exploiting 'context'--those circumstances surrounding an act or event--as another critical variable for convincing camouflage.

In Commentary a couple of weeks ago I noted the Marines of our Corps famous Drum & Bugle Corps are basically trained Marines--rifleman--and may, during wartime, be called upon to perform such duties.

Furthermore, all Marines serving in the twelve Marine Corps Bands are likewise basically trained Marines--all are rifleman. During times of war these Marines may also be called upon to serve as perimeter security and/or as a machine gun platoon. And this standard, this requirement, holds true for the Marine Corps Combat Center Band in Twentynine Palms, California.

Last Friday morning--April Fools Day, aboard their home base, the Combat Center Band performed their primary mission; as musicians. Duty as perimeter security or a machine gun platoon was not required.

The Band performed in support of a retirement ceremony. A ceremony, at the request of the honoree, that was originally not to be--the Marine's preference was for something "low-key." The general to whom the Marine reported had other ideas. As did the Marine's spouse. Guess who won?

There's nothing "low-key" about a ceremony for which the Marine Band plays.

Arriving about 20 minutes before the flag-pole ceremony I'd hope to greet and offer congrats to the soon-to-be-retired Marine--a friend for a couple of years. He was not to be found.

So loitering behind seating, hoping to catch him before the ceremony, I spoke briefly with a few friends and the Marine's spouse.

Mutual friends asked, "Where is he? Have you seen him?" No, no one has seen him.

Jump and scuba qualified, a couple of other retired Marine friends laughingly suggested maybe he was going to jump or rappel in. It'd be different but not unheard of and certainly not out of character. Neither discounted the possibility. But we had not seen nor heard a helicopter so concluded such a grand entrance was unlikely.

The Combat Center's commanding general--a brigadier--was present. A lieutenant general, friend of the retiring Marine since Naval Academy days, was present as the retiring officer and guest speaker. Well more than a hundred folks were milling about engaged in casual conversation prior to the ceremony but where was he?

Ten minutes or so before the 0800 start the Combat Center Band marched into position and played a short serenade. They had everyone's attention. As always, their field marching sharp and music crisp, superb, and inspiring.

The ceremony's emcee, a major, then took the podium, asked all to be seated, and extended a warm "Welcome" on behalf of the commanding general--seated in the front row along with the visiting general and the retiree's family. Still no sign of the retiring Marine. Odd.

The emcee asked all to please rise for playing of our National Anthem (while the color detail raised colors), Anchors Aweigh, the Marines' Hymn, the chaplain's invocation, and playing of honors for the visiting general.

There's nothing quite like hearing a Marine Corps Band play those tunes. Electric!

After honors the bandsmen began grounding instruments and moving to open seats to enjoy the ceremony. As most were settled, there was an eye-catching but not unusual scene of a couple of Marines assisting a fellow Marine with removing and grounding his bulky sousaphone.

About the same time the instrument was removed from the bandsman, the emcee, as is customary, beckoned for the Marine to be retired to report front and center. And from the starboard flank, having just had the big horn removed from his shoulders, came a smartly marching "bandsman"--the morning's honoree.

If anyone was not surprised, expecting entrance from the rear of the seated guests, I did not see them. Out of the band formation was not expected. Marching in with the band, he'd been in the wide-open all along. No one noticed--he was out of context. Besides, what was one more in a group of 40 to 50.

The honoree taking position in front of the retiring officer, the emcee proceeded to read sundry retirement documents and letters of congratulations from our Corps and Country's leadership.

After formalities the general, the retiring officer, spoke.

He first "apologized" to the commanding general for "intruding" on his territory--as promoting and retiring Marines is coveted duty--and then offered thoughtful, heartfelt remarks to his friend (wife and children) comparing their family's selfless and distinguished service to Corps and Country to the "300" and Battle of Thermopylae. His fitting and personalized words ones that could only come from one Marine to another having a long, close friendship. (At the afternoon soiree, the brigadier admitted his wife, after the general finished speaking, leaned over and whispered to him it was a good a thing he did not have a speaking part--it'd have been a hard act to follow. He laughingly agreed.)

And so it was the retiree's turn to say a few words--remarks revolved around four items in his "bucket list."

The first item--to march with the Combat Center Band; a unit which he respects, admires, and holds in high regard.

He explained his sentiments and that marching with the band had been a longtime desire. He was privileged to do it. "Bucket list item No. 1--check," he said.

And then he went on to discuss each of the other three items in his bucket, and concluded each with the word, "Check."

Later, at the party, he told of approaching the band officer with his idea, the warm reception, and the Marines in the band rallying to help him and saying to not worry if he fouled something up. In so many words he told them, "No, I want to get this right. I want to march like you--not be a blemish..." And so he went to practices to get the feel of shouldering the sousaphone and learn the field marching steps and movements. He wanted to be one of them--he wanted to blend in--though he could not play the instrument.

David Copperfield said, "The real secret of magic lies in the performance."

The retiring Marine's "performance" did not betray him. And if hiding in plain view, too, had been on his mind, he succeeded.

So how do you hide a Marine colonel--one of the more recognizable Marines aboard the base, the Combat Center's retiring Chief of Staff--within mere feet of a huge gathering of Marines and civilians? Put him in the wide-open. Put him in plain view. But put him out of context--that the critical variable. Put him where no one would expect to see him. Stick him in the band--with a sousaphone.

It never occurred to me to scan the band looking for him. I don't believe it occurred to anyone else, either. Of course not. That's why illusions work--great camouflage and sleight-of-hand.

An infantryman by trade and after 32 years active duty (37 total years) of dedicated service practicing cover and concealment and camouflage, he went out applying his trade to the bitter end. Class and style come to mind. And his "performance" as interesting and entertaining as any Las Vegas illusionist. And proving, once again, the best camouflage--the best disguise, deception, and illusion--is the simplest; exploiting the context of surroundings and circumstances and hiding in plain view.

For his final act as a Marine rifleman he convincingly shouldered a different weapon while hiding amongst fellow Marine rifleman shouldering, holding, and playing different weapons. Clever. Perfect. And a moment of camouflage all who witnessed are not likely to forget. Marine scout snipers would have been impressed. So would illuisionists Houdini, Angel, Blaine, and Copperfield. And maybe there was a lesson for all of them.

In the end, there was nothing low-key nor off-key (thanks to lip-synching) about the ceremony. And that's the way it's supposed to be for a retiring Marine and his family--the least our Corps and our Country can do to say, "Thank you."

And it shall not go unsaid, had there been some sort of bizarre emergency calling for the band to set up perimeter security or man machine guns that morning they had an expert rifleman in the ranks to lead them.

So goes our Corps.

Semper Fidelis.

Post Script

"My brain is the key that sets my mind free." Harry Houdini

Per Houdini, to think is key to good camouflage--to good illusions. And among the first tenets of  successful disguise/deception taught to all Marines: "Camouflage is continuous." And that applies equally to physical appearance and performance--to which the retiree adhered; perfectly. Houdini would have applauded.

Author's Endnote

The visiting general's father fought in the Battle of Okinawa (Codename: Operation Iceberg)--the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific during World War II; the casualties mind-numbing. The date of the landing--Sunday, 01 April 1945. Sixty-six years later, on Friday, 01 April, his Marine son retires a Marine--who, as a lieutenant, served with the 3rd Marine Division, Okinawa, Japan. The retirement date and guest retiring officer planned or serendipitious--I do not know. Does it matter? "WOW" is right!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Excellent posting; a very neat story.

Thanks for sharing this one.