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Nonfiction: Top Secret Insignia, Its Place in a Book

Trevor Paglen, I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me (Melville House Publishing, 2008)

As children, some of us collected polished stones, troll dolls, and Pogs. We’ve now graduated to credit cards, broken iPods, and, sure, coins. Trevor Paglen collects military patches and iconography, but not just your standard patriotic patch with an eagle on it. He hoards the black ones with figures in cloaks holding lightning bolts and Latin phrases that all basically mean, “We’re really important and we can’t tell you why.” He writes that the wearers of these patches are proud bearers of secrets, and wearing them “might be extra incentive for the person wearing the patch to keep silent.”

Paglen attempts to interpret the language of symbols within the patches. Probably eighty percent of the time, he writes that six stars on a patch signify 5 + 1, meaning Area 51 of the Air Force’s secret base near Groom Lake, Nevada. The USAF’s most secret flight tests happen there. Another example: lightning bolts connote electronic warfare. These images and symbols begin to accumulate, creating their own language, but never revealing much about any project. The patches seem to proudly announce their importance as much as they emphasize their secrecy, displayed on uniforms for other active-duty airmen.

Because Paglen was only able to gather fragments of information about this insignia, he discusses it at a distance, and often he has no explanation for a patch or its symbols, especially the ones with sparse information on them. In an interview, he said he cannot solidly confirm the accuracy of his information because of the nature of his journalism: asking around. That is, asking members of the military who’ve worked on these secret projects.

But it is not a military history. It’s an art book with a nondescript black cover, including an assumingly faux patch on the front: I Could Tell You . . . Just when you want him to explain the dark wizard beckoning you from an open book (the Bible? the unspoken Rule Book?), he tells you that its meaning is “unclear.” In other words, you’re figuring it out with him as you read.

If nothing else, this book is a nice reminder that although the U.S. military may exhibit frightening mascots such as the Grim Reaper (which was incidentally banned because it was not in “good taste”), dragons, snakes, skulls, ghosts, panthers, and slogans such as “let them hate so long as they fear,” one of their objectives is to protect us; these missions and extreme advances in technology are secret for our own good. As an art book, we can view it and draw our own conclusions from the fascinating system of signs Paglen reveals to us.


Erin Heath


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2008

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