“Are we the baddies?”

Via Ted Rall, I discovered the official insignia of the US Navy’s Executive Office for the Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons Program. This is part of the drone program that is responsible for the deaths of so many civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and other countries in the region that have generated so much anger and hostility towards the US.

Yes, they decided to use the grim reaper, that ominous symbol of the arrival of imminent death, as their logo. It is undoubtedly appropriate given what they do. But it is shocking in its directness, so unlike the usual government strategy of using euphemisms or fuzzy symbolism to mask the deadly nature of their actions. Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow points out how they usually do things. (Click on the cartoon to make it larger.)

I first thought that this might be a parody and found it hard to believe that it could be true but Jesus Diaz in an article that looked at the history of military insignias confirmed that it was.

This story reminded me of this sketch from That Mitchel and Webb Look.

When I first saw this clip a couple of years ago, I thought that the comedians were making a joke about there being skulls on the caps of the SS troops but Diaz tells me that that both the Nazi SS and the Waffen SS actually had them.



  1. Bob says

    The United States Marine Corps Reconnaissance Battalions have some Skull & Bones insignias, too:


  2. Scott says

    Oddly, the symbol on the German hats in WWI did look a bit anal. It was supposed to be a rosette.

  3. F says

    It was more honest back when the DOD was the Department of War. Better if they just changed the name to Murder, Inc.

    This is definitely one of those military culture things. You have to glorify things like killing, to keep everyone feeling OK with it. Of course, there are biases on who is involved with the military in the first place, and some of the personalities involved are already OK with exercising military might regardless of the intent or effects, or simply for its own sake. They would find such an emblem cool to begin with.

  4. Nomen Nescio says

    […] both the Nazi SS and the Waffen SS […]

    since the SS as a whole was a nazi organization, that sentence doesn’t really parse. perhaps you meant to refer to the waffen-SS and some other organization entirely?

  5. Mano Singham says

    Actually I was just quoting Diaz since I am not that familiar with the Nazi organizational structure.

  6. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    Speaking as someone who served for 11 years in our military, I’m quite familiar with the use of death symbology.

    Phrases such as “Death From Above,” “Kill them all and let god sort them out” are part of the black humor mentality that dealing with killing and being killed on a daily basis can foster.

    The unofficial emblem of my ship — USS Bainbridge, CGN-25 — featured Death in a gray robe and our nickname was “The Gray Ghost” because we were nuclear powered. In a more extreme example, my division (we were the missile gang) once had softball t-shirts made displaying a mushroom cloud and the phrase: “made in the U.S.A., tested in Japan” that were quickly confiscated when our chief found out what we had done.

    Service members kill in our names. If we’re not happy with that, don’t criticize the service members for doing what we ask them to do, criticize the politicians who send them out to kill.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,


  7. Mano Singham says


    I agree that there is a lot of dark humor that people use when they are actually in the killing business. The problem was that this is not an unofficial symbol. This was adopted by an official US government agency which gives it a different flavor.

  8. steve84 says

    It’s also possible that they chose the grim reaper because the biggest armed drone in the arsenal is the MQ-9 Reaper

  9. steve84 says

    Well, there is a difference between the regular SS and the Waffen SS, so it’s just badly phrased. Though later on, they could transfer people between both organizations pretty easily. Which made it easier to motivate concentration camp guards when then the alternative was being transferred to a combat unit.

  10. Riptide says

    That’s not quite as bad as the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works Desert Prowler logo, here: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_OEQH6e3VqNU/S5b9LocCYHI/AAAAAAAAAbw/AlR6bywehqg/s320/DesertProwler.jpg

    Which is based on, I shit you not, the Insane Clown “Fuckin’ Magnets” Posse’s final “v1” Joker’s Card, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wraith:_Shangri-La#cite_note-20

    Full disclosure: I actually used to like ICP’s music, back when they spoke about economic justice at least some of the time. That stopped pretty much after they had their first platinum album, though. Funny coincidence, that.

  11. Chiroptera says

    Service members kill in our names. If we’re not happy with that, don’t criticize the service members for doing what we ask them to do, criticize the politicians who send them out to kill.

    No, it’s not simple as that. First, We didn’t ask them to kill anyone. You might have, but I asked them not to.

    Second, we don’t have military conscription in the US. Members of the US armed serviced chose to join knowing what the job entails. And no one gets a free pass from being held responsible from their jobs.

    Now, I’m not saying here that we should be hating on service members (although anyone is free to twist what I’ve said anyway they want). I am saying that no one gets automatic immunity from criticisms of their choices.

  12. Chiroptera says

    Well, since there undoubtably people who will like to twist what I said, maybe I should say that there is an implicit “…if the criticisms are warranted” at the end of my comment.

  13. Doug Little says

    Well to be fair the logo is an accurate representation of what the unit does. I kind of like it. Shouldn’t the actual actions of the unit be controversial rather than the logo they use?

  14. sundoga says

    I must disagree, Chiroptera. We live in a democracy, and one of the less pleasent things about democratic systems is that the final decisions of our elected leadership are the responsibility of every one of us. Yes, even if you voted against it – because we acquiesce to the basic rules of the system: rule by the majority with respect for the rights of the minority. What was done was done as much in your name as in anyone else’s.

  15. Cat Ballou says

    I agree about the free pass notion. So many volunteer soldiers seem to think that they’re absolved of moral responsibility for their actions as long as they behave within the rules and regulations of the military, but if the military goal or action is immoral—for example, if a war was started under false pretenses—the guilt is shared by everyone who participates.

  16. chrisdevries says


    The problem with your logic is that none of us – the people who would prefer that military action against sovereign nations be exercised with severe restraint – have any way to stop the politicians we didn’t vote for (or even those we did vote for) from taking actions we don’t agree with. Being in a democracy gives us the ability to vote for whomever we wish, but it does not give the average person the ability to significantly influence the decisions of our elected leaders. Saying otherwise is like saying that all Iranians are equally guilty of those individuals in their government who have decided to make every possible effort they can to acquire nuclear weapons technology. Iran may not be a pure democracy, and the democratic elements of its power structure are certainly subject to corruption by those with power and money, but a citizen of Iran has no more ability to shut down the uranium hexafluoride centrifuges than a citizen of the USA has to stop the indiscriminate killing of hundreds of innocents in the effort to kill a few dangerous people.

    Those most responsible are the prime movers – those who initiated the drone program and those who continue to support it politically. Secondary responsibility falls on those individuals and organisations who profit from the drones program. They may not have directly made the decisions, but through their money and influence, they convinced the right people of the mutual benefit to having drones conduct warfare in three or more countries, only one (possibly two) of whom are actually declared war zones. This logic can be extended more broadly to all unjust American actions. What can an average American citizen who actually values the lives of innocent people in the Middle East do in the face of this corrupt system?

    I have two additional points to make here. The first is that the freedom that Americans enjoy has actually, in at least one way (but probably many more), made their country worse. The Supreme Court says that super-PACs have to be legal because the government cannot tell people what to do with their money, so we have a private election-manipulation business going on in conjunction with the public affair being conducted by the government. Elections can be bought, and once the winning politician gets to Washington, those who spent all of that money expect to see their interests advanced. George W. Bush was even able to scheme the system with a little help from his brother, without super-PACs to help him out.

    The whole point of democracy is to make things equal; no single individual in a democracy is supposed to have more say in the governance of their country than any other. Those who are elected are supposed to represent the views of their constituents (yes, all of them, not just those who voted for them), not the views of those who manipulated the public into voting for them (among other nefarious deeds). And when it comes to wars, lives lost, families torn apart (on both sides)…it’s not just about politics anymore. When democracy no longer fulfills its primary function, when the rich and powerful are the only ones with a voice, it is no longer a democracy. It’s an oligarchy that is trying to appear democratic.

    Secondly, I am no pacifist. I understand that war is sometimes necessary, and even support reasonable action against those who either oppress their own people or who have designs on invading and oppressing their neighbours. And I’m a Canadian too (and we’re supposed to be all nice and peaceful). But any war that is initiated in the name of the American people, any war where the only goal is to protect American lives, interests, or both, is an unjust war because it doesn’t consider the impact on the citizens of the country with whom America is at war. You can bet that a majority of Afghanis were suffering under the Taliban; that much of the general compliance with the rigid interpretation of Islam they advanced was due to fear, not legitimate zealous belief. Similarly, Saddam Hussein wasn’t acting in the name of the average Iraqi. These are people who don’t even have the illusion of a democratic system; how can you hold the actions of their leaders against them?

    Look at the big SNAFU that Bush II created in Iraq. Do you think any of his advisers even mentioned to him the intricate balance of religious power and influence in Iraq? Did anyone think to mention how an indiscriminate attack could cause a civil war? Do you think he would have cared, even if he knew? This whole “walk softly and carry a big stick”, this manifest destiny of the American behemoth is profoundly inhumane, and probably illegal, if there was a way to hold American leaders accountable for their actions. How can one country go barging around making sure that it gets its way all of the time, that its people should live good, free lives (in theory) while non-Americans are basically cannon fodder if they live in the wrong country? Why is an American life so much more valuable than an Afghani or Iraqi?

    I do not support the way these wars are being prosecuted. And yet the Canadian government gives its tacit support to America in Afghanistan (although much of Canadian soldiers’ responsibilities are in the reconstruction industry, they regularly engage in violent conflict, and undoubtedly have taken actions that led to the deaths of non-combatants). I can support reconstruction efforts, but there has been no condemnation of the civilian casualties in drone attacks, no press release denouncing the American leadership for approving of the torture of enemy combatants, nothing like that out of Ottawa. There has only been complete support for both American troops (when required) and American interests. Not my position at all, and yet, how can I affect the actions of my country’s leaders?

    A war in Iraq that was conducted with the assistance of the people who were persecuted under Saddam, that made preserving the lives of non-combatants a priority (i.e. as important as efforts to preserve American soldiers’ lives), that had a realistic way to deal with the leadership vacuum and the religious power struggle that could cause a civil war; this is a war I could get behind. Furthermore, this is a war that would have a chance of being supported by at least a few Arab countries, and a large number of Muslims worldwide. Going in and blindly blundering around, declaring the goals of the war accomplished when bloodshed is still at epic levels and when a civil war is raging across Iraq…the citizens of Iraq may be better off without Saddam, but they also know that your motivation was not primarily to help them out, that the American leadership doesn’t really care how many foreigners die as long as they can create the impression of being tough with terrorists. Islam may be a dangerous religion (more than most others), and Islamism is certainly a dangerous ideology, but engaging in wars with Muslims without caring what happens to the non-combatants is a good way to turn peaceful Muslims into Islamists, thus making the region even more unstable and justifying spending more money and lives on continuing to prosecute a war you cannot win.

  17. hyphenman says

    Good morning Chiroptera,

    Did you write a letter? An email? How many calls to your senators and representative did you make? Did you publicly speak out and support politicians opposed to the war? Have you gone to Washington and taken part in the anti-war protests. Have you run for office?

    I do not suggest that you have no right to speak if you have not, but doing the least we can do is the starting point and I encourage you to continue to demand that those who send our service members in harm’s way stop the madness.

    We are on the brink, with Iran, of yet another ill-conceived and disastrous war. If we do not all do everything we are capable of, then we will all be responsible for each and every death, not only of our own service members, but of each Iranian soldier defending their homeland and civilian caught in the conflagration of our making.

    As to the issue of conscription and our all volunteer military, speaking as someone who did volunteer and served for 11 years, I ask that you not discount the economic factors involved in enlistment.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  18. hyphenman says


    A different flavor? Certainly.

    Yet, I still feel the objection is misplaced and that our full energies ought to be directed against those who voted to go to war.


  19. sundoga says

    Chris, I largely agree with you. I am no fan of American Exceptionalism, and I don’t agree that any nation should have the power to dictate to others, or to crush them at will – though, like you, I don’t see any real way to prevent it.
    But I do not agree that, as citizens of a democracy, we don’t have the power to change things in our democracy. Our leaders ARE leaders because we allow them to be – no other reason. We have a two party system in the USA because we permit it. Canada may be different (I don’t really follow Canadian politics – between living in Australia and being a US citizen I have other things to worry about), but dominant parties dominate not because they have money, nor that they have efficient political machines – though of course, those things help. They dominate because they have mass appeal. Because they represent a broad consensus of much of the voting populace. Because they represent an ideological position a sufficient number agreees with. And because – we are content to allow it, as a group.
    We allow the system. We support the system. And when, following the system we created, our leadership makes a decision, it is our decision. And our responsibility. Ultimate power rests with the populace. Ultimate responsibilty likewise.
    If you want a real change in that, changing leaders will not do it. You would have to change the system, to something where our elected leadership has less choice, less scope to make decisions for us. And you would have to accept the consequences of that – a less powerful, but also less useful government with less ability to deal with catastrophe and danger.
    But unless we do that, then yes, we ARE all responsible. For what we create, and what we allow.

  20. Rodney Nelson says

    I did two years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. However I wasn’t in Vietnam. After training I went to Germany where I was a radio operator in a communications center. Most people in the military have jobs like that. Cooks, clerks, mechanics, medics, etc. make up most of modern militaries. The so-called tooth-to-tail ratio is 1 to 7. Seven people do support jobs for each person carrying a rifle or driving in a tank.

  21. Chiroptera says


    I don’t see how your comment contradicts anything I wrote. I said nothing about whether a democracy needs a military, nor did I say anything about the responsibilities that an individual citizen bears for the actions of its government.

    My remarks were a disagreement with what I read to be a claim that US military service members should be given special consideration in regards to criticism or being held responsible for their behavior.

    Sorry if that wasn’t clear.


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