Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #84: I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me by Trevor Paglen

Yes, the title doesn't quite go the way you expect -- but Paglen has an explanation: his title is a translation of the Latin motto "Si ego certiorem faciam... mihi tu delendus eris," from one of the pieces that he's examining in the book. He thinks that particular phrasing was chosen to echo Cato the Elder's Carthago delenda est, and to reference the Greek goddess of strife, Eris.

Given the sometimes wonky Latin phrasing of other mottoes in this book, though, you have to wonder if Paglen isn't ignoring a more obvious explanation: fighter pilots and similar hoo-ah military types were not necessarily the A-students in their Latin classes.

Perhaps I should back up and explain.

I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed By Me is a collection of mission and other patches associated with "black" (i.e., secret) aviation projects of the American military apparatus. Paglen admits that it's a haphazard and random collection, not arranged historically or operationally or according to any other specific scheme -- but, then, it has to be, since all of these projects were or still are secret, and the patches themselves (passed on to collectors, photographed in passing, or allowed to be semi-public because they're enigmatic enough not to violate mission secrecy) are often the only real public records that any of these things existed. The Pentagon certainly wasn't going to answer his questions about the Space Warfare Center's Special Projects Division or the Directorate of Special Projects. (There's a whole lot of "Special" on these patches: it's military-speak for "don't ask.")

So, after a reasonably thoughtful and about-as-comprehensive-as-it-could-be introduction, Paglen devotes each two-page spread to a picture of a patch on the left-hand side, and the right-hand side to as much as he's been able to dig up about that patch or the mission/unit/event that it stands for. Sometimes it's very short -- like Project Zipper, where Paglen really can only say that it's something the 413th Flight Test Squadron did, and that it's secret. And sometimes Paglen has more details, at least an indication of what kind of test flight it was, that the lightning bolts represent electronic warfare, and that a common "5+1" grouping of stars references the famous Area 51.

Of course, all of this stuff is supposedly secret, so it's not impossible that some or all of the facts Paglen presents here are actually misinformation. It's probably not all fake, but I'm sure there have been some laugh-filled lunches out at Groom Lake with buzz-cutted flyboys making fun of the things Paglen has worked out here.

Patches and insignia are catnip to military fans -- and quirky, secret ones are thrilling even to people like me who don't care much about the regular stuff -- and this is a neat book filled with a lot of really weird ones. It's a quick read, certainly, but it could be a thousand story triggers for the right SF or Fantasy writer -- why do so many patches have wizards on them? What did the pilots really fly in Project Zipper? As long as you don't think about how many of your tax dollars went to pay for this stuff, I Could Tell You is a hell of a lot of fun.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

No comments:

Post a Comment