Of screeching Hawks, throbbing Lynxes and a pacifist's dilemmas
This weekend I went with two friends and two boys to the Yeovilton Air Show. Yeovilton is a Royal Navy Air Squadron base that isn't well-known, but in today's global military arena it is quite important since it hosts naval aircraft working from Britain's aircraft carriers. Long-reach power-projection. In recent wars they're often the first to go in, 'softening up' targets, and they're quite involved with terror-related actions - 'search and destroy' missions.
Now I'm one who was in the anti-Vietnam demos, and I'm distinctly pacifist by nature and rather Buddhist by attitude. So this air show visit, prompted by my eight year-old son and his friend, was not just any old fun thing to do on a Saturday. I'd prefer steam engines. I've talked with him about what his feelings might be if we were on the receiving end of these warplanes - and what if he were attacked as a terrorist when he thought he was fighting for freedom? How would he like it if our own street was strafed by attack helicopters?
Nevertheless, there were aspects of this air show that caused me to think.
The RAF Red Arrows is a team of nine Hawk jets, which do fantastic formation-flying - at times at 400mph (600kph) and just six feet (two metres) apart. They were strangely beautiful - nine planes flying in tight formation towards us, then simultaneously breaking and fanning out, describing remarkable parabolas in the sky - trailing coloured smoke behind. They epitomised some qualities I admire in military operations. Superb training and coordination, the application of sheer skill, precision and collaboration - a concerted action which is so well coordinated and executed that it is very effective. There's something both frightening and remarkable about this.
Concerning coordination, there were instances where Red Arrow planes flew straight at each other, at a joint on-coming speed of 800mph. One pilot flies on a direct course, and the other pilot's job is to just-miss him. This is an act of trust which lies deep at the heart of the question of coordination and synergy. In social issues, mutual distrust plays such a key role, rendering society incapable of engaging in concerted action. Often it takes an emergency or a tragedy to activate cooperation. We Brits are quite good at that when we're sufficiently stirred to do it, and we call it 'World War Two spirit', though its last major rendition was touched off by Princess Diana's death. Trust needs a mutuality of co-reliance between all parties. For me, at the air show, it was instructive to observe this mutual trust being demonstrated to the degree where the slightest mistake could be catastrophic. An expensive game, very masculine.
Later in the show they staged a full scale anti-terrorist operation, involving some sixteen Sea King, Chinook and other helicopters with four Harrier jets - a classic modern-day operation. Again, tremendous discipline and coordination - helicopters flying low and close, winching down men, land-rovers, guns and supplies while Harriers were screeching close overhead, strafing enemy positions. Again, tremendous concerted action. Poor enemy.
The sheer investment made and trouble taken in military technological development is outrageous and amazing. During the Cold War this hardware, this 'kit', was developed for deterrent purposes. That is, it was made not to be used. Which is a crazy way of justifying such enormous investment and the effect it has had on our societies. Today, what with Iraq, many ordinary people wonder with good reason whether so much of this death-dealing technology is necessary. Needless to say, military research has stimulated cutting-edge technological development, and that laptop computer and LCD screen in front of you was developed initially for military use. Harrier jump-jets are remarkable - they can stop, hover and even go backwards in mid-air, landing vertically or in a small space - making an enormous racket in the process.
I live in Glastonbury, a town full of highly gifted, unusual people, who customarily experience the opposite to the military: chronic under-support, under-belief and under-investment. We do healing work and get marginalised, and they kill thirty people and get a medal. Excuse me? Over the years, I've seen remarkable possibilities arise and disappear in Glastonbury and similar places, simply because society has chosen not to give them support and energy - or a fair try. Or various interests have striven to close them down.
At this time of history, the powers-that-be choose to support military development and the public chooses to acquiesce in it. In UK, where a majority opposed our nation joining the Iraq war, we nevertheless pay for that war through our taxes - that is, we support it and thereby are ourselves vicariously killing Iraqis. The reason we got into this mess concerns concerted, longterm, public inaction, which permitted the situation to arise. We allowed military interests, politicians and gun-toters to get away with it. In the 1950s-80s we had a considerable peace movement, but we still didn't step forward to disarmament. Too many jobs would be lost, and too many risks needed taking.
he demonstrations of February 15th 2003, opposing the Iraq war, were a indeed remarkable concerted action, in some way historic. But they were insufficiently concerted or emphatic to make an immediate difference. They arose in the context of a largely indifferent society generally more concerned with wealth and consumption than with humane matters of principle - a society scattered and polarised in its energies, and careful to lock its doors. This permits certain interests with more concerted designs to determine the name of the game in our world.
At the end of the anti-terrorism display at the air show, all the helicopters lined up in front of us, hovering as a curtain call. Now these are big mothers, carrying whole arrays of weaponry and kit, throbbing dauntingly in the air, wobbling your solar plexus. Quite beautiful, in a way. Dead impressive. Weapons of large scale destruction. I waved to the guys in them too, to say thanks for their efforts. It had been quite a show.
Now, I might be a grainy old pacifist, but I respect many military men. Some of these guys are characters worth knowing - they've seen some stuff, and they have become something as a result of the sheer training, practice, focus and experience they have been through. In some conflict and rescue situations of the last fifteen years, they've had to be tough here, and sensitive to women, children and old grannies there. It's just that I wish we could apply similar high-quality effectiveness to other crucial things too, with full-scale backup on a similar scale to what we see in the military domain. Tree-planting, AIDS, humanitarian relief, renewable energy development or community revival. There's so much to be done.
I dread to think of the resource-burning and pollution caused by that air show. The Tornado jet which screeched past us and then, flame belching from its thrusters, pulled up into a climb and a roll with a resounding roar, burned up probably as much fuel on that manoeuvre as you might in your car in six months. But then, in this time of history, our society thinks, "Well, it's just for one day, and it won't make much difference". Multiply this by a million, and there's a global problem.
In my last book, Healing the Hurts of Nations, I wrote that I can support wars, for a time, on one count only: if they genuinely contribute to the longterm ending of military strife of all kinds. Sometimes military actions really do save lives and put armed nightmares to an end. But this should be clearly regarded as a transitional approach, used much less frequently and more carefully than we have seen in the last decade. Not least, the arms industry and trade badly need strategic phasing out. If we can phase out small farmers, fishing and coal-mining, we can phase out the arms trade.
'Just war' is nowadays in trouble, yet a few wars, in today's context, can nevertheless be argued to be just, or at least necessary. As I write, military action seems necessary in Darfur, Sudan. Though it is also true that it is the causes of conflict we most need to address - conflict is a failure of human relations. "War is not about who is right, it's about who is left" - Bertrand Russell.
The Iraq war took place, despite our protestations, to teach us the value and importance of concerted public action - clear, consistent and effective expression of the public will. This is a matter which won't go away. Our electoral democracies are failing, and the public is unclear about its subscription to democracy and freedom. A great big glob of underlying frustration is building up, because people are not feeling heard by their democratic governments. This glob is kept from erupting by fear of loss of material security. Yet security is itself now leading to increasing insecurity - over pensions, property, jobs, space, water, terror, economies and the future. At present the world is in a locked loop: we want change as long as nothing changes. Which means we allow warmakers, uniformed or just Kalashnikov-bearing, to ply their trades.
This matter of concerted action is not just a military or a political thing. It's an operational, social thing. Back in the eighties, I ran a series of community-based educational summer camps, the Glastonbury Camps and the OakDragon Project. One summer, our crew was pulling into a new site to set up a camp on the edge of Dartmoor for 150 people. We had about seven trucks. Entering the lanes leading to the field, we encountered the army, with their trucks, entering a neighbouring field. It all took a long time. Eventually they were in their field and we were in ours. Up went the tents and domes, out came the water-pipes, up went the toilets, fires were lit, food was cooked, people and equipment everywhichway. Our camp was designed in circles and theirs in squares, ours was colourful and theirs was dark green. And guess which group was the first to be sitting around drinking tea, eating dinner, mission accomplished? It was 'the hippies' of course - for that was how we were regarded. We ran on synergy. They ran on organisation. And we got to the tea first. And when it rained and blew in the following days, they had more of a crisis than we!
We didn't have advanced training and big resources, but we were by then a hot team, on good form. Everyone knew what to do and pulled together. It wasn't planned - though some key people troubleshot when necessary. This is the kind of synergy that arises from mutual single-mindedness, teamwork, practice, trust and energy. It involves setting aside one's precious self and some of its preferences, and synching with everyone else, going in one direction together. I was reminded of this synergistic teamwork and its effectiveness, by watching the air show.
Military personnel, to many of us seemingly faceless and heartless, practice levels of camaraderie and cooperation we rarely see in wider society. They have personal relations and trysts equalled only sometimes in the outside world. On the commentary at the air show, we heard a litany of respectful biographical details of individual pilots and personalities roaring past us. They were very much individuals, doing their bit.
I had a swig of Rescue Remedy when I came home, and sat in the garden. My aura was shot to pieces. These jets force themselves through the air, juddering your senses. They're named hawks, wasps, lynxes, harriers and tornados. Even so, the sound of a jet starting its engines or revving them up is mighty impressive. You can feel the power. These are incredible feats of engineering. It's just that the uses to which they are put are seriously questionable. Human ingenuity, skill and courage on this scale could be dedicated to far more constructive things.
Unless my son pushes me to go again, I think I've had enough of air shows.
I wish ordinary folk in Falluja had such choice.
© Copyright Palden Jenkins 2004.
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