Though it was first designed in 1962, finalized in 1976, and then standardized in 1990, the Desert Battle Dress Uniform (DBDU)—affectionately known for its “chocolate chip” or “cookie dough” camouflage patterns—defined the U.S. military era known for a single event: Operation Desert Storm.
That brief conflict and its decisive victory grabbed our nation’s attention 30 years ago this month. America watched the Persian Gulf War from thousands of miles away in nearly real time on a burgeoning 24-hour news cycle. It watched as reporters spoke from Baghdad rooftops, describing an eerily silent capitol in the minutes before Patriot and Scud missiles first lit up the night sky.
In the days that followed, what emerged from the televised destruction of Iraq were the endless loops of Army Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell, the smiling giants in battle dress towering over crowds of troops in the field. America watched its men and women on the front lines, in the chow halls, or standing victoriously in group photos, sometimes under Iraqi landmarks and Saddam Hussein murals. Etched into its collective mind, America’s chocolate chip became the sartorial symbol of its military might.
Though the DBDU is a variant of the Battle Dress Uniform (the BDU, with its three-color woodland pattern, lasted over 31 years in four different decades), its authorization for wear was short.
The 1992 version of AR 670-1 – Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia – spells out authorization for “year-round wear on duty by all personnel… when… prescribed by the commander.” And except for the Gulf War, only select units for select operations received authorization.
Functionally, the DBDU was also America’s first desert camouflage uniform. Designers at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center based its six-color (and later three-color) pattern on the rocky and elevated climate of the American South West. The front face of its 50/50 cotton-and-nylon twill made soiling and stains less noticeable; it measured well for infrared protection, and it was water resistant.
But the DBDU was also costly and more complex to produce, and later “deemed unsuitable for most desert theaters.” Its replacement – the Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU) – began development in the 1980s and saw widespread use as early as 1992.
Today, it’s hard to see the DBDU outside the context of its time. It was so symbolic for its age that you could buy Bootleg Bart Simpson apparel and Topps baseball cards appropriating the pattern – not as themed accoutrement, but as defining feature. And, depending on your view, that it became a cultural pop icon either relegates it to – or enshrines it to – its brief moment under the sun.
For this writer (and Operation Iraqi Freedom Army Veteran), it’s so 1990s that it’s also rad. But we want to hear your thoughts, too. What are your memories of the DBDU? Sound off in the comments below!