March 24, 2009

Do Not Fail to Count the Cost

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.


john said...

I think you understand war very well. As long as this planet has people on it willing to kill, there will be war. What are we willing to kill for? Would you kill one person to save a thousand? Would you kill ten thousand people to free fifty million? Would you kill someone who tried to kill you? Would you kill someone who was preparing to kill someone you loved? If we refuse to wage war, will we just end up being victims of it anyway? Lots of questions, no satisfactory answers.

Peace :)

wolfie185 said...

Wow Monica that was beautiful! You brought tears to my eyes. I spent a portion of my life loading some of those bombs you saw on fighter jets. I don’t mean this as justification because there is no justification for being part of the war machine, but members of the Air Force have always had an easier conscience since we rarely see the end results of our jobs whether you are a pilot or a ground crew member. When you load a 2000lb bomb on a jet you don’t and can’t visualize the face of the person’s life that is going to be ended by the weapon. In the military in general you are really brainwashed to the extreme that you have to block out any thoughts of interdependence towards the human race and nature, you become desensitized. I say this in pure hind sight, from the prospective of an older man who did things for livelihood as a younger person that he would not do today nor condemn. When we were building up to the current wars I was adamantly against the wars, my concern was for all the people involve, our men and women in uniform and the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, I understand war completely from my training and would not and can not support the damage that war causes, physically, emotionally and spiritually. One of my favorite episodes of the TV show, MASH was when a young fighter pilot receives a minor injury and has to wait at the M.A.S.H unit for a ride back to his base, while waiting he gets to see first hand the cost of his job, in the end he understands that with the push of a button he is destroying the lives of innocent men, women and children. You are right people do need to understand the whole story behind those death machines, they were and are part of a global game of chess that unfortunately turns deadly serious every so often, be side the bombs need to be pictures of the cities, villages and hamlets those bombs have destroyed along with the faces of the survivors, bring some reality to the tour. We has adults are also responsible explain the big picture to those who don’t understand whether they are our kids or not.
Once again thanks for a wonderful and touching post.


Kavita said...

".. to what lengths human beings will go to impose our will upon others"

As I watched the surf washing the long, unspoilt beach yesterday, a clear warm morning, my eyes traced the land line & I thought, 'someone from another land steps on this soil & tells us,' Now I'll tell you how to live', & then goes on to decide we are not developed enough. Cool. Who asked in the first place. Would a woman think like this if she ran a country? I wonder.