I began taking patches and military iconography seriously a number of years ago while visiting California’s Antelope Valley in the westernmost region of the Mojave Desert. The Antelope Valley is the nerve center of the United States’ military aviation industry and home to the Air Force Test Center and Edwards Air Force Base. Made famous by the film The Right Stuff, Edwards is where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, where Pete Knight pushed the experimental X-15 rocket plane toward Mach 7 twenty years later, and where the space shuttle Columbia landed after its first space flight in 1981. The Flight Test Center’s motto Ad Inexplorata (Into the Unknown) speaks to the history of experimental aviation research that defines the region. On that particular day, I was visiting Peter Merlin, an “aerospace archaeologist” with a penchant for tracking down historic aircraft crash sites and a knowledgeable researcher of military aviation history. One of Merlin’s particular areas of expertise is the history of “black” (i.e., secret) aviation projects, which is why I had traveled to the Antelope Valley to meet him.
As we sat in his living room, Merlin told me about the history of what people in defense circles call the “black world” of classical projects, and recounted stories of the brief glimpses he’d seen of it. He told me about the time he’d spent standing on a ridgeline in the middle of the Nevada desert looking down on the Air Force’s secret base near Groom Lake. He told me rumors and anecdotes about a $300 million CIA-Air Force plane that never got off the ground, about a mysterious “classified demonstrator” flown in the mid-1980s, and about a secret plane called the YF-113G that flew in the early 1990s. The bits of arcana he had picked up in his work were as dizzying in their incompleteness as they were fascinating.
After spending the better part of the afternoon chatting, Merlin motioned for me to follow him upstairs and into his office. There, I found myself surrounded by the refuse, leftovers, and bits of debris that a half-century of secret aircraft projects had left behind. He’d recovered metal shards from shattered stealth fighters by locating the remote sites where they had crashed, and found the in-flight recorder from an A-12 spy plane in a local junkyard. There were mugs, pins, and other memorabilia preserved in frames, glass-enclosed shelves, and well-kept vitrines. “I trust evidence,” Merlin said. “People can lie. Evidence doesn’t.” He handed me a thick folder stuffed with documents. “Here’s the Standard Operating Procedure for Area 51,” the operations manual for a secret Air Force Base, “most people just assume that everything is classified so they don’t take time to look,” he said. Indeed, a few months later, I would obtain my own copy from the ever-helpful staff at the National Archives. “And this,” he told me as he opened a notebook filled with scanned images of military patches, “is called ‘patch intel.’”
I’d seen some of the images he had reproduced in his notebooks before, lining the walls of test-pilot watering holes, on the living room walls of other people I’d talked to, and on the pages of in-house military history publications. They were part of the military’s everyday culture. I’d always found the skulls, lightning bolts, and dragons that adorned the patches to be fairly unremarkable, but Merlin saw something in them that I hadn’t noticed—the symbols they contained were far from random. The lightning bolts, he told me, meant specific things in specific contexts; the numbers of stars on an image might represent a unit number or an operating location; the symbols on a patch could be clues to the purpose of a hidden program. These symbols, Merlin explained to me, were a language. If you could begin to learn its grammar, you could get a glimpse into the secret world of itself.
And so I began to collect. When I toured interesting military bases, I took notes of symbols that its personnel wore. I started making sketches of interesting images I’d seen. As I amassed more interviews with military and intelligence-types, I always made a point of asking about patches or other memorabilia that they might have in their possession. If I saw something noteworthy adorning the wall of a bar or the home of a retired NCO, I would ask to take a photo. In many cases, people freely gave me a copy of what they had lying around. I began writing to Freedom of Information Act officers and base historians at different military installations, requesting images associated with obscure programs. Sometimes, this actually produced results. I began to amass more and more images and started to learn how to separate the diamonds from the rough. I had acquired a collector’s obsession.
Trevor Paglen is an artist and writer based in New York.
This text is an excerpt from I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World (Melville House, 2010).