The X Styles

Pentagon patches betray otherwise secret missions

| May - June 2008

Shrouded figures with glowing eyes. Lightning bolts, skulls, and swords. A panther, a Minotaur, crows, and lots of dragons. This might sound like the fantastical imagery of comic books and science fiction, but it’s actually the iconography of the United States military. Not the mainstream military, with its bars and ribbons and medals, but the secret or “black” projects world, which may or may not involve contacting aliens, building undetectable spy aircraft, and experimenting with explosives that could make atomic bombs look like firecrackers. Here, mysterious characters and cryptic symbols hint at intrigue much deeper than rank, company, and unit.

Writer Trevor Paglen started collecting the patch designs depicted in I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed By Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World (Melville House, 2007) when he was interviewing retired military men for a forthcoming book about secrecy and geography. He noticed that most of them had a room dedicated to military memorabilia, and one man urged him to pay attention to the symbolism in project patches.

“He told me that all the images are there for a reason,” Paglen says, and they have special meaning for the people who wear them. “There’s this weird language in these patches that says something not only about the programs that they’re working on but also about this culture.”

Paglen set to learning the language. A recurring motif of six stars, that is, five plus one, signifies Area 51, the black project base in Nevada. Lightning bolts often represent electronic warfare. Black backgrounds and images of nocturnal activity—owls, mushrooms—often refer, not so secretly, to secrecy itself.

Why make patches at all for projects whose very existence is supposed to be kept under wraps? “That’s the million-dollar question,” Paglen says—but he has a theory.

“Under the old tradition, you got a souvenir from work that you’d done,” he says. For example: “There’s a long tradition in flight tests of making souvenir patches and flying them up the first time a new airplane flies. They just never gave up those traditions.”