Morale: The War On Offensive Art


October 21, 2016: While the U.S. military has forced the removal of racy “nose art” from aircraft and vehicles they have yet to crack down on imaginative “kill marks” on aircraft and (less frequently) armored vehicles and anti-aircraft missile systems. The nose art and kill symbols were first used a century ago and as the decades rolled by a wider assortment of destroyed targets were portrayed by small symbols or silhouettes near the cockpit or (for armor vehicles) on the side of the turret. The noise art was often racy and became a political issue but so far the kill marks have remained small enough and bland enough to avoid scrutiny by the censors.

That may be changing as the hysteria about killer robots increases and seeks more victims. Then there is the more personal nature of new weapons, especially those involving electronic surveillance. For example in 2015 a picture of a new U.S. Navy EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft with “kill marks” under the cockpit. Most of these were in the form of a lightning bolt to indicate a successful combat mission that involved jamming or locating enemy communications. But there was also one kill mark that showed the silhouette of a running man superimposed over the lightning bolt. When asked, the navy explained that this was for a mission in which the EA-18G tracked a “high value target” via their cell phone and then using a missile to home on that signal. In some cases the EA-18G would track the target for a missile launched from a nearby UAV. What is unusual about this is that navy and air force electronic warfare aircraft have been able to jam or locate electronic signals since the 1970s, as well as launch missiles to home in on the source of those transmissions. While the tech hasn’t really changed attitudes have. This can be seen by the changing attitudes towards nose art since the end of World War II in 1945.

By 2013 the changing attitudes had reached the point that the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, following the example of the U.S. Air Force, ordered the removal of racy photos, pinups, and the like from all workplaces. Follow-up inspections were held annually since then. This comes in the wake of a similar air force effort during 2012. That involved officers and senior NCOs spending a week to search all offices, workshops, and other work spaces in the air force and remove 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 undertaking continued 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 in 2010 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, in 2006 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 for long periods of time.

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.

Back in 2006 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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