Representing the Clandestine
If Tourism, Olen Steinhauer's invented black-ops division within the CIA, were real, what would its insignia look like? Trevor Paglen has documented seventy-five shoulder patches designed for United States covert agencies in his book, I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me. (The title is a translation from Latin of the patch for the Navy Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 4, at Point Mugu in California).
He submitted hundreds of Freedom of Information requests for the images, then decoded their heraldry and iconography by interviewing military men and women. If, for instance, you see a patch with five stars on top and one star on the bottom, you know it has something to do with the notorious Area 51, the secretive military base where spy aircraft and weaponry are tested and aliens supposedly held in captivity.
The idea of insignia for a secret mission seems parodic, but in fact it is so true and so ridiculous that Paglen flustered Stephen Colbert when he tried to joke about it on "The Colbert Report". The Utne Reader's article on Paglen includes an image gallery of the patches.
This article was originally published in March 2009, and has been updated for the
February 2010 paperback release.
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