09 September 2017

Meditations at an Air Show

Last July at SkyFest 2017 we watched a P-51 Mustang perform over Fairchild Air Force Base.

It was painted with invasion stripes like those on aircraft during and after the Normandy invasion. The announcer talked about its history and drew the crowd's attention to its sound. He said those engines aren't made anymore and they can only be rebuilt so many times before these flying bits of history become permanently grounded.

The P-51 was followed by U.S. Air Force A-10 Warthogs, a U.S. Navy FA-18 Super Hornet, and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. 

People waved to pilots as they taxied past.

The technical achievement, discipline, and economic power represented by each aircraft and pilot brought back the wonder I felt when we first visited the Boeing Museum of Flight or when I read books about early airmail pilots.

A North American P-51B Mustang in invasion stripes, photographed at
the Spokane Skyfest airshow, 24 July 2010, Mark Wagner,
Creative Commons.
But this display also reminded me these aircraft are weapons.

At the air show, the announcers used phrases like “defending freedom,” but it struck me this often means “defending American interests” or “projecting American power.”

There are things unique about America—our peoples, the precise timing of certain ideas in our history, our religious heritage—but these do not confer moral heroism.

It is a good thing for humanity, that America and its allies defeated Nazism and that Eastern Europe no longer languishes behind the Iron Curtain.

But eugenics was popular in America just as it was in Germany before the second world war, and the Tuskegee airmen flew their P-51s in segregated units.

Power is not an unmingled good.

Writing for “The American Conservative,” Peter Van Buren traces the history of American air power from the carpet bombing of German cities and the firebombing of Tokyo, and he argues the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was only a more efficient, weatherproof means to the same end.

Van Buren writes, “It was only after WWII ended, when accurate descriptions from Hiroshima began finding their way back to America, that the idea of firebombing as a way to shorten the war, to spare lives in the long game, came into full flower.”

He points out the discrepancy between the public aversion to targeting civilians and the numbers of civilian dead in “surgical strikes” across the Middle East.

This history tempers the triumphalism that would confuse ideals with achievements. Indeed, it teaches us how ideals can blind us to our particular sins.

This history teaches us to recognize the mental and physical price paid by veterans. It teaches us to see those who serve or who have died in the armed forces less as saints of the republic, more as humans, having responsibilities not all of us have, yet heirs of the same mortality, corruptibility, and grace.

This history also points to something else. As John Donne wrote in his “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”:

“No man is an island, entire of itself;
    every man is a piece of the continent,
    a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
    Europe is the less,
    as well as if a promontory were,
    as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me
    because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
    it tolls for thee.”

We see it too in the experience of Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah. He told his people to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar, which wasn't very patriotic. He told them to stay in the land, but they fled to Egypt. So he went with them because his calling was to bring God's words to them.

He is perhaps the most likely writer of the five funeral elegies in the book of Lamentations, grieving for his people and the destruction of Jerusalem.

“How doth the city sit solitary,
    that was full of people!
how is she become as a widow!
    she that was great among the nations,
    and princess among the provinces,
how is she become tributary!

She weepeth sore in the night,
    and her tears are on her cheeks:
among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her:
    all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
    they are become her enemies.”

I do not argue war might be ended just by disarmament. History paints too tragic a picture for that. 


Perhaps instead we go back to our respective work, not confirmed in our idealism but to wrestle with what it means for presidents, soldiers, airmen...and poets...to love our neighbors and our enemies.

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