Feldgrau is a German word, translated to “field gray,” the color of the uniforms of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen and the Luftwaffe, or the color of those old films of the siege of Stalingrad, where all the land lies desolate and what buildings still stand do not shine but endure.
It was also the color of the Bundeswehr, the West German army, the city split, occupied. This before the wall went up, all old alliances severed, lines drawn. Before the airlift and the Cold War and the theory that if the nukes ever flew the world would turn grey, as nuclear winter set in when the smoke from the burning would obscure the sun.
This, of course, after WWII. After the Maginot Line and Dunkirk and the Battle of the Bulge. After the fire-bombing of Dresden and the two mushrooms clouds rising over Japan.
But before everything else that happened happened.
In my mind it is the color of mountains, or the uniforms we wear in them now as the report of rifles echoes down into the valleys. It is the color of the streets of Kabul or Kandahar, where men wary and weary from watching everything that approaches close their eyes at night and see only grey. In the airport on my last trip to Chicago I saw these uniforms everywhere, as if the men wearing them were traveling or returning from all corners of the earth, and on the airplane I inspected the colors of the soldier I sat by, the way the greens and greys blend so that he seemed to disappear even there on the seat high above the earth, although he didn’t really disappear until we got off the plane and I forgot about him.
Colors are made to camouflage, to hide men from other men, to make it, at short glance, hard to tell a man apart from a rock or the earth or the distant trees in the last stretch of forest, to make it easy to erase one’s presence. All war is landscape, our uniforms tell us—they only change depending on where we walk, where we war.
The grey is not grey, but some other color. Something in between so a soldier might hide in city or country. It looks to me like winter. Like cold winds over a leached landscape. Like those old films again, tanks tumbling over frozen earth, the Russians ever retreating into the heart of the mother, all England hiding in the subways as the bombs erupt night after night and London burns like Dresden later would. It looks like the smoke from burning jungles bombed by napalm, or the way the desert light bends in the shockwaves of bombs or the windswept flanks of mountains while blue smoke rises in the valleys. All paths shall be made straight, but grey is between mountain and valley, between black and white, between wrong and right.
It is the color of the mass graves my grandfather found in Korea, only the ground had frozen so hard it wasn’t so much graves covering the bodies as gravity holding them to earth. It is the color the bodies might have turned, or the color of the TV screen when I watch what used to be war, where grey is the color of ruptured cities with crumbling buildings, the color of the film, the color of the room you find yourself watching from late at night while everyone else is asleep.
In our back closet, my father’s jungle camo had our same name sewn over the heart, and I took this to heart on days I snuck into his room to wear his skin over mine, to gain his smell of starch and aftershave, to walk in his polished boots. My grandfather’s gear from WWII was OD green, which means in military language Olive Drab, and I should have something to say about that, some comment or concern on the difference of those two words, one a live thing, the other with connotations of grey and darkness and depression, all the things I’ve been describing here, but I do not. Only that it hung in the back room, hidden behind the suits he wore to church and the suits he wore to work, the Big Red One stitched to the shoulder like blood.
When my step-father was called to war we were in a new arena, and his colors were sand and desert, his boots made from cordura to resist the tears and abrasions that might come when the sand was slammed together by the wind and storms came spinning out of the Middle East, turning the desert black as sackcloth, the moon red as blood.
When I joined the military my uniform had my father’s name sewn right where he had once worn mine, and though he had already walked in my boots, I do not know what he thought to see a younger version of himself wearing what he had once worn, as if the past had circled back to the present, as if we were always at war.
These uniforms hung in our houses like the thin skins of empty men. As if only their shells had returned.
The Feldgrau uniform was last used by the West German army in 1958. It is not a specific color, but a blend of greys and browns more suitable to modern warfare than the bright blues and brilliant reds of the 19th century, when men would stand shoulder to shoulder and only fire when they saw the whites of the enemies’ eyes.
It is the close to the color of the Iraqi hat my step-father brought back from Desert Storm. The one I still have hidden away, the one I will sometimes bring out to show friends, if we have gotten drunk enough under the spinning stars and the talk has turned to what wars we are still engaged in or what wars linger in our collective past, and when I bring it out they turn it in their hands for some time, not speaking, just turning it again and again as I tell the story of how my step-father saw it lifting in the hot desert wind as his battalion rolled toward Baghdad, how he leaned from the truck and snatched it on the move as it skittered over the sand, and when I stop talking my friends will finally look up and ask “What color is that?” because they need words that ignore the blood stain and the bullet hole centered in the forehead.
Paul Crenshaw’s work has appeared in Best American Essays 2005 and 2011, anthologies by Houghton Mifflin and W.W. Norton, Ecotone, North American Review, Southern Humanities Review, and The Rumpus. He has work forthcoming from Glimmer Train, Washington Square Review, and Epiphany.