Military: What’s That Patch?

The mysterious world of covert military operations has always had a kind of sex appeal—the illicit tease of the unknowable. But enthusiasts are piercing that secrecy with an unconventional weapon: the uniform patch. In a new book, "I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me," military buff Trevor Paglen gives readers a peek into the shadows, linking dozens of colorful patches to the missions they represent, among them flight-test squadrons, space agencies, even Area 51 research. Macabre imagery dominates: skeletons and grim reapers, ghosts and dragons. One patch, believed to be from a top-secret aircraft unit, shows a bare-chested boxer, three dogs, a pig, a guitar and a beer. It reads, WORLD'S OLDEST KNOWN FLYING PIG.

Uniform patches are a military tradition, symbolic down to the last detail. Paglen found many of the book's examples at the homes of vets he knew. With the help of journalists, historians and hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests, he rounded up 75. "I wanted to create a window into that black world," Paglen says. The Pentagon isn't letting any more light in. Department of Defense spokesman Bob Mehal told NEWSWEEK that it "would not be prudent to comment on what patches did or did not represent classified units." That's OK. Some mysteries are more fun when they stay unsolved.