If you’ve ever seen a war movie, you’ve seen the military patch. They’ve taken a sort of mythological position within the public consciousness, but their history isn’t quite as lengthy as you might have imagined. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting.
In warfare, the battlefield is chaos, and identifying a body in the wild can be difficult. Military patches play an important role as both an emblem and a non-oral history of battlefield travails and triumphs.
The Civil War
The original purpose of the military patch was simply pragmatic. In a world where there was no such science as forensics and no national databases for identifying bodies, death during the Civil War was often anonymous. And while there may not have been the resources in place to audit everybody, it was much easier to identify emblems.
Without these emblems, many mothers and wives could spend a lifetime waiting for their son or husband to come home. In a conflict as traumatic as the Civil War, those scars could last for generations.
Coincidentally, the Civil War would largely run in parallel to the Industrial Revolution – and the clear value of having identifiable patches in warfare made it a prime candidate for industrial reinvention.
With the ability to manufacture quality patches identifiable by a common standard, the notion of patches was revolutionized. What was once a patchwork of embroidery traced along familial legacy transformed into a cottage industry designed to standardize military protocol. The U.S. Army took a front-and-center interest in these new possibilities.
The World Wars and Beyond
A more recognized standard for patches and emblems was fully in place by the time America entered World War I in 1917.
The 81st Infantry Division would be the first to create what’s now known as a tactical patch. Its patch of a wildcat on traditional olive drab became a standard bearer for army outfits throughout the country, and other squads and divisions jumped at the opportunity to celebrate their unique identities.
By the time of World War II, the standardized tactical patch had been formalized and squarely centered as a point of pride and tribal identity for these groups of men who would go into battle together. Eventually, insignia would be formalized by military brass, but it was ubiquitous enough to assume that every division had their own unique emblem far before that.
Many of these unit emblems have a poetry to their origins. The “AA” on the patch of the 82nd Airborne Division, for instance, refers to the melting pot makeup of the outfit – while the 29th Infantry Division’s patch alludes to the fact that it included both Confederate and Union survivors from the Civil War.
Adapting to a New Kind of Warfare
The U.S. army’s first standardized patches reflected the war they were in – bright, bold, and heroic to reflect the Greatest Generation. But as the Cold War came into swing and more insidious methods of warfare became the standard, so did the U.S. Army standards for how patches could be worn. The Vietnam War saw the introduction of “subdued” badges which could be worn in jungle environments without jeopardizing camouflage in the process.
Today, patches continue to be an important part of military identity, and the patches worn by shoulders in our military conflicts overseas all follow in the rich legacy of their forebears. High command has been good about encouraging this sense of identity and pride as well.
Today, both traditional and subdued versions of patches are available and specialized for every army unit. What became a way to identify the dead has instead become a way for military members to identify themselves and find a sense of camaraderie. US army patches continue to provide a rich window into the history of American service members.