October 22, 2010:
Google supplied satellite photos recently revealed 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.) Now that the pictures of this custom has gone viral, many more people will check Google Earth pictures of military bases, and publicize what they find. Some commanders, as they are wont to do, will order symbols painted over. But wiser minds will tend to let them stay.
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, three 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 have, so far), there was the risk that some Afghans would be offended. No Afghans have complained yet, 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 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 reasons 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.
Four 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 nose art, 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 did 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.
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. Now 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.