Morale: The War On Smut

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June 23, 2013: Following the example of the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps recently ordered the removal of racy photos, pinups, and the like from all workplaces. Follow-up inspections are to be held annually from now on.

This comes in the wake of a similar air force effort last year. Between December 5th and 17th last year officers and senior NCOs searched all offices, workshops, and other work spaces in the air force and removed any images or material that demeaned or insulted women. Mainly, this meant pinups, but some inspectors erred on the side of career security and removed anything that hinted of a bad attitude towards women. Many airmen feared this would also include pictures of wives or girlfriends in revealing beachwear but there was little of this. No protests were tolerated and the decisions of the inspectors was final. This was 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. The air force did agree to spare the racy examples of nose art on air force combat aircraft in its museums.

This latest undertaking continues a half century old air force tradition of cleaning up their image. In the last few decades the navy has been trying to catch up. Not all members of the air force go along with this effort. 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. Even the navy and marines have got with the program and the army is expected to follow.

All this use of morale building symbols has had a hard time in the last few decades, as commanders ordered them removed because they were often not politically correct. For example, six 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 first seen during World War I and flourished during World War II because of enthusiastic efforts by American pilots and ground crews. The practice 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. During World War II the practice was also adapted for some combat vehicles and small ships in many countries.

The practice largely disappeared after World War II. In the mid-1950s, U.S. 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.

Seven 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 and the practice continues to encounter resistance from senior commander.

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 or warships are another matter and are, for the moment, banned just about everywhere in the American military.

 


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