Morale: No Sex Please, We're Airmen


December 10, 2012: Between December 5th and 17th U.S. Air Force officers and senior NCOs will search all offices, workshops, and other work spaces in the air force and remove any images or material that demeans or insults women. Mainly, this means pinups, but many inspectors will err on the side of career security and remove anything that hints of a bad attitude towards women. Many airmen fear this will also include pictures of wives or girlfriends in revealing beachwear. No protests will be tolerated and the decisions of the inspectors will be final. This is all meant to reduce the number of assaults on or other mistreatment of women. Previous efforts to eliminate this bad behavior have not been completely successful, so the extensive hunt for offending images was ordered.

This latest undertaking continues a half century old air force tradition of cleaning up their image. Not all members of the air force go along with this. For example, two years ago Google supplied satellite photos revealing something the American military uses to help morale but that they would rather keep secret. In this case it was a Batman style bat symbol painted on the roof of a hanger in a U.S. airbase (Kadena Air Force Base in Japan). There are actually a lot of these roof paintings, usually representing the squadron (the Batman symbol was for a fighter squadron known as the vampire bats). Once pictures like this became widely known some commanders ordered the symbols painted over. Wiser commanders tended to let them stay. But the trend is towards playing it straight and humorless.

This morale building symbology has had a hard time in the last few decades, as commanders ordered them removed because they were often not politically correct. For example, five years ago, the British Ministry of Defense found out that Harrier pilots and ground crews in Afghanistan had painted racy images ("nose art") on their aircraft. The brass ordered the troops to cease and desist. In addition to the possibility of women in the Royal Air Force complaining (none ever did), there was the risk that some Afghans would be offended. No Afghans have complained either and Afghan men who had seen the nose art usually studied it intently.

The concept of nose art was invented by American pilots and ground crews during World War II and was quickly adopted by their British counterparts. From World War II through the 1950s, U.S. combat aircraft often had customized, and unofficial, cartoons or insignia painted on the front portion of their aircraft. The illustrations were usually created by someone on the ground crew and personalized the aircraft for the crew. It boosted morale. But in the mid-1950s, air force commanders decreed that the nose art was "unprofessional," and by the 1970s, most of it was gone. It managed to survive in some reserve units but was forbidden for active duty aircraft. The air force says the official reason for the policy has to do with security and "sanitation." Basically, it's become part of the air force traditions not to have nose art.

Six years ago two retired air force sergeants, and some commercial artists, began campaigning to bring back nose art. Some senior air force commanders were favorably disposed towards this and the air force was keen to boost morale, as the air force was then going through a period of personnel retrenchment (cutting 40,000 people) and tight budgets. Allowing nose art would not cost anything, as it would be voluntary and up to units to find artists and materials for creating it. So it was allowed to return. Sort of. Like bureaucracies everywhere, changing something like this was difficult. Many air force bureaucrats resisted but the nose art began to reappear. No scantily dressed women were allowed on the new nose art.

Actually, the nose art never completely disappeared. This was particularly the case with the Air National Guard (a reserve operation, with units controlled by state governments when not called up for federal service). The state politicians were more inclined to look the other way, especially since some of those politicians served in Air Guard units. Regular air force units are increasingly sporting nose art and hoping that their roof art will also be spared the wrath of the politically correct. Pinups in the hanger are another matter and are, for the moment, banned.


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