Military Patches Ruined by Political Correctness?

Somewhere a military staff officer is scratching out a memorandum restricting the creation, use, and publicity of the long-running tradition of creating unit patches…

When Walt Disney created thousands of military unit insignia in World War II — all for free — he understood the positive contributions such insignia brought to morale, camaraderie, and the mission. While a majority of aircraft nose art faded with the end of WWII, units still supported those “intangible” military necessities with slogans, unit mottoes, and unit patches.

Decades later, those traditions continue, though relatively new widespread publicity has dampened some of those earlier spirits.

In one recent famous example, a group of atheists complained that a government office had the word “God” (Deo, actually) on their organizational patch. The unit acquiesced and replaced it with “miracles.” The atheists weren’t totally pleased, but they seemed to let it go since they’d had a victory over Deo.  As was noted at the time, unit and mission patches are often a collection of relevant imagery, inspirational quotes, inside jokes, and even subtle references to classified details. For example, a list of mission patches here explains the inclusion of a cluster of six stars on a patch is actually 5+1 — referring to Area 51.

More recently, the National Reconnaissance Office launched a satellite which included a mission patch that made the news:

The new logo features a giant, world-dominating octopus, its sucker-covered tentacles encircling the planet while it looks on with determination, a steely glint in its enormous eye. The logo carries a five-word tagline: “Nothing is beyond our reach.”

The ACLU put a point on the criticism, which wasn’t the use of tax dollars to create a clever patch or a catchy phrase:

Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist and senior policy analyst with the ACLU, raised a quizzical eyebrow at the new slogan.

“Advice to @ODNIgov: You may want to downplay the massive dragnet spying thing right now. This logo isn’t helping,” he wrote.

To their credit, the NRO publicly defended the patch:

An agency spokeswoman told Forbes that there’s a very good reason for the symbol: The octopus is intelligent, and therefore a good emblem for an intelligence agency.

“NROL-39 is represented by the octopus, a versatile, adaptable, and highly intelligent creature. Emblematically, enemies of the United States can be reached no matter where they choose to hide,” said Karen Furgerson, a spokeswoman for the NRO. “‘Nothing is beyond our reach’ defines this mission and the value it brings to our nation and the warfighters it supports, who serve valiantly all over the globe, protecting our nation.”

Just because it got a little criticism, the NRO didn’t fold — even though a little creative artwork really held no mission necessity. What were they defending, then?

The team.

The patch was created by the team behind NROL-39 (just as many other NRO teams had done in the past). It was a light-hearted and clever symbol of a program and its efforts. It wasn’t intended to send a political message, or even necessarily a message at all. It was as simple as a symbol of pride of the team.

And when the NRO defended it as harmless — or even appropriate — the NRO let their people know they weren’t going to react rashly to external criticism. The result? Improved morale, mission effectiveness, and an increase in loyalty to the organization.

There’s a leadership lesson to be learned there.