The Subversion of War: Drugs, Patriotism and the Grip of Pop Culture

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The 20th century was a time of remarkable change. Known for completely revolutionizing the way people lived, with innovative opportunity harnessed across a great many fields, it also marked a shift in the public’s opinion towards the idea of war, and more generally, “war institutions.”

In thefirst and second installments of One Block Down’s “The Subversion of War,” we explored how the Vietnam War was crucial in sparking an unstoppable cultural revolution and how this cultural shift completely subverted the meanings of common war symbols, with a focus on military clothing’s role in the outfitting of early hippie movements. We now turn our attention to the decades proceeding the ’70s and how military clothing transcended its original role, and how pop culture of the new millennium helped camouflage permeate the mainstream.

Scroll down below to read Part 3 of One Block Down’s latest editorial series, “The Subversion of War”, documenting pop culture’s affinity for military clothing.

After the Vietnam War defeat that culminated in the fall of Saigon in 1975 — an event which marked the end of a war that started more than 19 years prior — the US notably lowered such massive foreign interventions in favor of “less risky” battles. And even though the Cold War was still in its prime, the US began steadily decreasing its military presence.

Apart from a few notable interventions in Central America in the ’80s, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981 saw America’s focus shift more towards its economy. Reagan understood just how bad war was for business.
But this didn’t change how much the American public was subjected to images of war. At the cusp of mass technological advancements and a growing entertainment industry, the photographic remnants of the country’s many wars soon became the founding blocks for countless war movie blockbusters in ’80s Hollywood.

On one hand, some of these movies criticized the idea and concept of war, presenting for the very first time on screen the consequences of sending hundreds of thousands of young men to the frontline: take Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’ for example. While others reinforced the stereotypical role of the American military as a sort-of real-life hero, and a savior to the impoverished.

This sort of Pentagon-fueled, patriotic pop culture was propelled by movies such as the 1984 blockbuster ‘Red Dawn’. And with the de-regulation of television by Reagan, television was given the chance to invest in military-themed programs, turning it into the most potent and invasive marketing tool — especially for the younger generation, who would spend their days immersed in the mixed messaging of pop culture.

This situation made the ‘80s a decisive decade for military aesthetics, culture, and clothing. Teenagers across the US and the rest of the world grew up watching movies, TV series and played with action figures and toys that depicted American soldiers, changing the idea of a soldier forever, from a patriotic figure, to a pop culture phenomenon.

As absurd as it may seem to have a first-world country so indoctrinated, just remember that an army spokeswoman once told America’s PBSthat in recent decades, "Young men of recruiting age cited movies and television as their primary source of their impressions about the military, so [movies and television] are very important [to the Pentagon].”This pop-culture strategy didn’t only work in finding young people to enroll in the army, but also transformed the idea of war, giving it a new image, polished by the hands and cameras of Hollywood’s screenwriters and directors.

In just a single decade, war went from an experience that many Americans lived to an inflated movie experience, where, more often than not, the American army was always in the right. It was portrayed as fighting for freedom and justice, when in reality, it was only ever fighting to further the skewed ideals of an equally skewed government.

Don’t get me wrong, certain plots were built, for example, on corrupted American officials who fought for their own interests, but, at the end of the day, the hero was always a good-hearted American soldier as referenced in movies like ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’. As arguably one of the best examples of this Pentagon pop culture strategy, the Rambo franchise perfectly matched Reagan’s interest as it portrayed a masculine, hard-bodied underdog hero — all prominent symbols of US pop culture — fighting for a righteous cause.

It also helped build the concept of “us;” an idea that already started after WWII with the Cold War, but soon grew to become increasingly embedded in the general consciousness. The concept worked by presenting a deep division in ideologies, thus creating separation and a “natural enemy”, as is the case in the battle between capitalism and communism. Only ever exasperated by the media, America was always placed in opposition of the decade’s enemy — in the ’80s it was the Russians, in the ’90s and ’00s it was the Middle East — which only ever served to dehumanize the other side. The enemy in such instances were only ever considered evil for the sake of being evil.

All of this is just to say that before and during the Vietnam War, military clothing was linked principally to real war action. From the ‘80s on, it became more of a pop-culture phenomenon and a fashion statement; as discussed in the second installment of The Subversion of War editorial series, where we saw how the hippie movement turned to militarywear for its durability, low prices, and availability.

However, it also needs to be considered that, thanks to the hippie’s style influence and other such movements, military clothing became closely linked to revolutionaries, which only furthered its role as political clothing in the following decades.

While the ‘80s completely change the idea of war by making it appealing to the American public, it also played host to another historical event; the War on Drugs. Not only did this mark the beginning of a considerable internal war, but it was responsible for completely changing the look of countless American cities. Beginning with Nixon in 1971, who famously labelled drug abuse as “public enemy number one”; this phantom war had the goal of fighting against drug use in the country, but, in reality, it was the “new Jim Crow” and had the purpose of oppressing the people at the lowest levels of society.

The War on Drugs bought with it new laws that criminalized the use of drugs such as marijuana, militarized the police, and increased mass incarceration in the US, mainly at the expense of minorities.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, first with Reagan and then with Bush Sr., it became became a critical element of the US agenda. First, Reagan increased the DEA’s budget, which was the federal agency opened by Nixon with the sole purpose of fighting drug use in the country, and established minimum mandatory sentences. Then with the crack epidemic spreading rapidly across many big US cities, congress passed laws that created a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity for the trafficking or possession of crack when compared to penalties for trafficking powder cocaine. This ultimately caused a surge in discrimination, with minorities more likely to use crack than powder cocaine (which instead was predominantly used by white people). The situation was only exacerbated by the new president George H. W. Bush, who not only continued the efforts of his predecessors, but in his first speech to the nation in 1989, he concentrated his effort towards the War on Drugs, even showing a bag of crack cocaine on national television.

“You know why we crack babies? Because we born in the '80s;
The ADHD crazy.”

— Kendrick Lamar, “ADHD”

One of the consequences of the War on Drugs was that in the American neighborhoods, a real-life war broke out; with the criminalization of drugs, the prices skyrocketed, meaning that drug dealers had more money to pay affiliates, buy more guns, and, as all good businessman, increase their share of the market. They began fighting with fellow dealers to gain more territories, and, together with gangs, began fighting each other, ultimately leading the police to target such neighborhoods and indiscriminately arrest people for minor infractions.

The War on Drugs meant that military clothing in specific neighborhoods went back to the old days; a symbol of real war and real soldiers, living in a state of constant danger. Studies even confirm that growing up in such dangerous American cities can cause similar PTSD to that experienced by American soldiers. This war propelled military clothing to the subculture that more deeply bought army clothing to the mainstream and established camouflage as a staple of contemporary fashion: hip-Hop.

Even though military clothing has been present since hip-hop’s earliest days, it truly hit the mainstream when artists such as N.W.A., Ice-T, Kool-G-Rap and Public Enemy began gaining considerable traction. The reason such artists turned towards militarywear comes both from the new war that was active in damaged American cities and for the fact that it perfectly represented values pushed by rappers of the golden age. It implied toughness, discipline and hardness, and at the same time, with many rappers being part of gang culture, it also implied the role of a “soldier” (being active in the war going on the streets). This of course manifested a sense of pride that would only further skew the people’s perception of war.

At the same time, urban communities were wearing army clothing for reasons similar to the hippies; it was durable and cheap. In the span of a decade, hip-hop went from being an emerging genre to a new musical and cultural phenomenon, with the ’90s regarded as a time where rappers earned multiple platinum selling albums, and rolled through the nation to play in sold-out arenas wearing camouflage and army clothing.

Yet few have been able to embody this trend with quite as much power as Tupac. The legendary rapper was the son of Afeni Shakur, an activist and former member of the Black Panther movement, a group which is known for its militarized look, characterized by leather jackets and the iconic black beret.

Some of Tupac’s most iconic outfits drew inspiration from this, with the beret becoming an important trend of the ’90s, thanks also to its presence in some of the most iconic movies of that decade, such as ‘Jackie Brown’ by Quentin Tarantino.Tupac also wore leather vests with technical pockets, as well as full-camouflage looks, as seen in the movie ‘Above the Rim’, or at the 1996 Soul Train Awards where, apart from wearing full camouflage, he wore fingerless leather gloves and the aforementioned black beret.

The ’90s also saw the use of military clothing by civilians surge in popularity, thanks mainly to the Gulf War, and month and a half debacle started by a US-led coalition.
Even if brief, this war still shook the US public, with operation Desert Storm being documented daily through footage shot on US bombers.

“I ain’t gettin' my leg shot off
While Bush old ass on t.v. playin' golf
But when you come to my house with that draft shit
I'mma shoot your funky ass bitch
A nigga’ll die for a broil
But I ain’t fightin' behind no gaddamn oil
Against motherfuckas I don’t know
Yo Bush! I ain’t your damn ho”

-Geto Boys, “Fuck a War”

This surge military clothing’s popularity meant that for the first time camouflage really transcended the functionality of army clothing, being used by designers from around the world. With everyone from John Galliano to Rei Kawakubo cementing it as a core brand element, military clothing soon flooded the pop culture and streetwear scene.

These then emerging designers saw the look and cultural connotation of camouflage as a new resource for their collections. Take Nigo for example, the streetwear legend who has featured camouflage interpretations since his earliest collections (i.e. BAPE’s iconic “Cloud Camo”). This application of a once-tainted pattern grew so prominent that the likes of Notoriosu B.I.G. could be seen wearing a BAPE camouflage jacket in 1993.

What this era meant for military clothing and camouflage was a substantial change in perception, and a new role into the mainstream, outside of news coverage, thanks to a new wave in content production (such as movies and tv series) and new products that portrayed this aesthetic and world, like toys and comics.

At the same time, the concept of war and enemy in itself started shifting; with the end of the Cold War in the ‘90s, Presidents told a new fundamental truth to the American audience, America is number one in the world, and no one can scare us. This awareness of the US as the only superpower in the world after the fall of the Soviet Union meant that, in a way, the US had to “invent” their enemies. War became a movie theme, and invading forces transformed in SWAT police breaking into houses in black neighborhoods, while Hip-Hop became the soundtrack of a new cultural revolution.

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