It was my vacation. We had spend the vacation doing what I wanted to do and going where I wanted to go – sandstone Mars-scapes, forest cathedrals with waterfall music, vast bichromal landscapes of gold and blue, tiny little towns where nothing in the pie comes from a can and the beef was raised ten miles away. The final day, we followed his muse and stopped at the SAC Air and Space Museum.
SAC stands for Strategic Air Command, the precursor of today’s STRATCOM, which dominated Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Nebraska, during the Cold War. Brandon, my brother, and I used to joke when we were kids about how we were lucky. SAC was a priority target, even with their secure underground bunker. If nuclear war broke out we would be killed instantly and wouldn’t have to live through the aftermath to die slowly of radiation poisoning or starvation. Yes, we were lucky to live so close to such a place. We ooh’ed and aah’ed appropriately on the fifth grade field trip to the SAC museum, then housed at Offutt. I had not been there since.
In the intervening years, the museum was moved to Ashland, where a new building was built to house the entire collection indoors, where it could be properly displayed and protected from the weather. The atrium encloses a pedestal mounted and dynamically tilted SR-71 “Blackbird” which is 107 feet long and 55 feet from wing tip to swept wing tip, painted a utilitarian and dramatic matte black. The museum was one after another of bombers, fighters, reconnaissance planes, helicopters, and all manner of minutia for and about the profession of warfare as undertaken by SAC. The great B-52, 160 feet long with a 185 foot wingspan and an 80,000 pound payload sits side by side with its ancestors, starting with the B-17 only half the size with a fourth the payload capacity. There were stories and trinkets, including a copy of the Japanese declaration of surrender, a Nazi flag, maps, flight suits, and partially deconstructed engines.
It all made me unbearably sad. I have felt more cheerful at funerals. I wandered silently between and below these monstrous machines and felt the weight of all those ghosts pressing on the inside of my eyes. I sat on a bench and watched middle-schoolers by the busload learning to glorify war. Oh, they may sit and watch the constantly scrolling videos with the testimonials from the veterans, old and scarred, of friends lost, horrors seen, and hardships endured. But they’ll still dream of how cool it would be to become a military pilot and revel in this tangible evidence of American power, never mind the final outcome.
The power of this place was greater to than the power of the Vietnam Memorial or the Holocaust Museum in D.C., for here was a place that failed to count the cost. There were no names on the walls, no lists of the dead, no photographs of the aftermath of American bombs. Here the bombs were lined up in neat rows from smallest to largest, the size of a Volkswagen, so that we could be suitably impressed by our technological progression and awed by our military might. We both walked out quieter than when we had arrived.
“I mean, it’s cool and all, with the planes, but it’s just….it’s just….”
“Yeah. I know exactly what you mean.”
That so much genius and industry, arguably more than any other pursuit in human history, should be invested in the waging of war is perhaps the single most tragic facet of our existence. Now we live in a time of relative peace and we are supposed to look back on our violent legacy with what? Pride? After all, we did survive. We defeated great evil every now and then. We have learned in the process, haven’t we? But learned what?
So we walked out of the SAC Air and Space museum into an overcast and blustery day, quiet and reflective. We drove away without looking back, but I think if I ever have children, I shall bring them here. It will not be to revel in the glory of American achievement, but to understand the fundamentally mistaken nature of our society and to what lengths human beings will go to impose our will upon others, even in the name of a “just war.” We will count the rolls of the dead.
And I shed silent tears for anyone who fails to do so.