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 â?? patches â?? 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 shows a space alien with huge eyes holding a stealth bomber near its mouth. "To Serve Man" reads the text above, a reference to a classic Twilight Zone episode in which man is the entree, not the customer. "Gustatus Similis Pullus" reads the caption below, dog Latin for "Tastes Like Chicken."
Military officials and experts said that the patches are real if often unofficial efforts at building team spirit.
The classified budget of the Defense Department, concealed from the public in all but outline, has nearly doubled in the Bush years, to $32 billion. That is more than the combined budgets of the Food and Drug Administration, the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Those billions have expanded a secret world of advanced science and technology in which military units and federal contractors push back the frontiers of warfare. In the past, such handiwork has produced some of the most advanced jets, weapons and spy satellites, as well as some boondoggles.
Budget documents tell little. This year, for instance, the Pentagon says Program Element 0603891c is receiving $196 million but will disclose nothing about what the project does.
Trevor Paglen, an artist and photographer finishing his Ph.D. in geography at the University of California, Berkeley, has managed to document some of this hidden world. The 75 patches he has assembled reveal a bizarre mix of high and low culture where Latin and Greek mottos frame images of spooky demons and sexy warriors, of dragons dropping bombs and skunks firing laser beams.
"Oderint Dum Metuant," reads a patch for an Air Force program that mines spy satellite images for battlefield intelligence, according to Paglen, who identifies the saying as from Caligula, the first-century Roman emperor famed for his depravity. It translates "Let them hate so long as they fear."
Wizards appear on several patches. The one hurling lightning bolts comes from a secret Air Force base at Groom Lake, northwest of Las Vegas in a secluded valley. Paglen identifies its five clustered stars and one separate star as a veiled reference to Area 51, where the government tests advanced aircraft and, UFO buffs say, captured alien spacecraft.
The book, I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me, is published by Melville House. It offers not only clues into the nature of the secret programs, but also a glimpse of zealous male bonding among the presumed elite of the military-industrial complex. The patches often feel like fraternity pranks gone ballistic.
"The military has patches for almost everything it does," Paglen writes in the introduction. "Including, curiously, for programs, units and activities that are officially secret."
'A huge industry'
He said contractors in some cases made the patches to build esprit de corps. Other times, he added, military units produced them informally, in contrast to official patches.
Paglen said he found them by touring bases, noting what personnel wore, joining alumni associations, interviewing active and former team members, talking to base historians and filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
A spokesman for the Pentagon, Cmdr. Bob Mehal, said it would be imprudent to comment on "which patches do or do not represent classified units." In an e-mail message, Mehal added, "It would be supposition to suggest 'anyone' is uncomfortable with this book."
In an interview, Paglen said his favorite patch was the dragon holding the Earth in its claws, its wings made of American flags and its mouth wide open, baring its fangs. He said it came from the National Reconnaissance Office, which oversees developing spy satellites.
"There's something both belligerent and weirdly self-critical about it," he remarked. "It's representing the U.S. as a dragon with the whole world in its clutches."
Paglen plans to keep mining the patches and the field of clandestine military activity. "It's kind of remarkable," he said. "This stuff is a huge industry, I mean a huge industry. And it's remarkable that you can develop these projects on an industrial scale, and we don't know what they are. It's an astounding feat."