In a post last weekend, I included a book by Trevor Paglen, The Last Pictures,  which will be published in September. That is a collection of photos and more, and the content will be sent into orbit on the Echostar XVI satellite in September in digital form. But Paglen’s earlier books are much stranger explorations of our world – especially the secret “black world” of the government and the military.

Most of these other books also use imagery as a way to get to truth-telling. He has done a series called “Limit Telephotography” that used high-end optical systems to photograph top-secret governmental sites. I’m not sure how well that played with the government – probably not any better than “The Other Night Sky” which collected data from amateur satellite watchers who track and photograph classified spacecraft in Earth’s orbit.

He is the author of five books that investigate future warfare, state secrecy, experimental geography, anthropogeomorphology (I had to look that one up), deep-time, and cave art.

His recent 2010 book, I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed By Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World, examines the strange patches of the secret military units that are full odd names and occult symbols and classified missions. A book on patches? Really?

Paglen contends that the government’s “black world” is “replete with the rich symbolic language that characterizes other, less obscure, military activities. The symbols and insignia shown in the Symbology series provide a glimpse into how contemporary military units answer questions that have historically been the purview of mystery cults, secret societies, religions, and mystics: How does one represent that which, by definition, must not be represented?”

I first encountered Paglen a few years ago in a New York Times article that begins:

Skulls. Black cats. A naked woman riding a killer whale. Grim reapers. Snakes. Swords. Occult symbols. A wizard with a staff that shoots lightning bolts. Moons. Stars. A dragon holding the Earth in its claws.

No, this is not the fantasy world of a 12-year-old boy.

It is, according to a new book, part of the hidden reality behind the Pentagon’s classified, or “black,” budget that delivers billions of dollars to stealthy armies of high-tech warriors. The book offers a glimpse of this dark world through a revealing lens — patches — the kind worn on military uniforms.

“It’s a fresh approach to secret government,” Steven Aftergood, a security expert at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, said in an interview. “It shows that these secret programs have their own culture, vocabulary and even sense of humor.”

One patch has a space alien with huge eyes. It is hanging on to one of our stealth bombers. Is it about to eat it? It says “To Serve Man” which is an allusion to a Twilight Zone episode in which the aliens plan to serve mankind as a meal and not in a mentoring way. Even stranger is the phrase “Gustatus Similis Pullus” at the bottom of the patch. That’s dog Latin for “Tastes Like Chicken.”

These patches have wizards along with more traditional military symbols like lightning bolts. Of course, it’s odd to see a wizard hurling that bolt on one used at a secret Air Force base at Groom Lake, near Las Vegas. In Paglen’s book he says the five clustered stars and one separate star shown on the patch are a reference to the well known and unknown Area 51 where the government tests advanced aircraft, and UFO buffs have long maintained that the government keeps captured aliens and their  spacecraft.

I find the patches to be more fun than frightening. If a patch says “Oderint Dum Metuant” and you know that it is used by those working in a program that uses spy satellite images for battlefield intelligence, you want to know what it means. Paglen tells us that it is a quote from the famously depraved and mad Roman emperor Caligula. It translates as  “Let them hate so long as they fear.”  Makes sense to me.


Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes

Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World

A version of this post also appears on Evenings in Paradelle