Send in the B-52s

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Sixty Years of B-52s (U.S. Air Force photo)

W.J. Astore

Perhaps there should be a “new rule” on the American military scene: When the B-52s are called out (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), it means America has well and truly lost.

Unbeknownst to most Americans, since April of this year, B-52s flying out of “Al Udeid airbase in Qatar … have conducted more than 325 strikes in almost 270 sorties, using over 1,300 weapons” against ISIS and now in Afghanistan, notes Paul Rogers at Open Democracy.

For those of you unfamiliar with B-52s, they are huge long-range bombers, originally deployed in the 1950s to carry nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union.  In the 1960s and early 1970s, they were called upon to carry conventional bomb loads during the Vietnam War.  Their enormous bomb tonnages did not serve to win that war, however, nor has the subsequent use of B-52s in places like Iraq and Afghanistan served to win those wars.  They have become a sort of stop-gap weapon system, their ordnance called upon to stem the tide of American military reversals even as their presence is supposed to demonstrate American resolve.

In a way, America’s B-52s are like the Imperial Star Destroyers of the “Star Wars” universe.

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An imperial star destroyer loses yet another chase

Big, lumbering ships that never seem to provide a winning edge vis-a-vis the smaller, “rebel” forces against which they’re deployed.  But the empire, which never seems to learn, keeps using them, even as it seeks even bigger, “Death Star” weaponry with which to annihilate the resistance.

Of course, when Americans think about air power, they don’t think of “Star Wars” battles or B-52s on bombing runs.  They think of audacious and cocky fighter pilots, like Tom Cruise’s “Maverick” in the highly popular movie, “Top Gun.” For me, the most telling scene in that movie is when the flashy, undisciplined, and self-centered Maverick puts his F-14 Tomcat jet into an irrecoverable flat spin. That wouldn’t be so bad, except Maverick has a backseater, “Goose,” who dies during the ejection.  Maverick, of course, ejects safely and lives to fight another day.

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It’s too late for Goose, but Tom Cruise lives on to make more bad movies

Again, most people probably remember the cheesy ending to this movie where Cruise is shooting down MiG after MiG.  But take another look at the flat spin scene.  America, like Maverick and Goose’s jet, is dropping from the sky, spinning wildly and uncontrollably all the way.  And while a few Mavericks may be lucky enough to get away unscathed, many Gooses in the process are going to end up dead.

Goose didn’t deserve to die in “Top Gun,” and neither do the many “gooses” around the world caught in the violent and all-too-real backwash of America’s jet-fueled wars.

The Persistence of War

A young Tom Cruise loving his machine gun in "Taps"
A young Tom Cruise loving his machine gun in “Taps”

W.J. Astore

“[W]ar is a distressing, ghastly, harrowing, horrific, fearsome and deplorable business.  How can its actual awfulness be described to anyone?”  Stuart Hills, By Tank Into Normandy, p. 244

“[E]very generation is doomed to fight its war, to endure the same old experiences, suffer the loss of the same old illusions, and learn the same old lessons on its own.”  Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War, p. 81

The persistence of war is a remarkable thing.  Two of the better books about war and its persistence are J. Glenn Gray’s “The Warriors” and Chris Hedges “War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.”   Hedges, for example, writes about “the plague of nationalism,” our willingness to subsume our own identities in the service of an abstract “state” as well as our eagerness to serve that state by killing “them,” some “other” group that the state has vilified.

In warning us about the perils of nationalism, Hedges quotes Primo Levi’s words: “I cannot tolerate the fact that a man should be judged not for what he is but because of the group to which he belongs.”  Levi’s lack of tolerance stems from the hardest of personal experiences: surviving Auschwitz as an Italian Jew during the Holocaust.

Gray takes this analysis in a different direction when he notes that those who most eagerly and bloodthirstily denounce “them,” the enemy, are typically far behind the battle lines or even safely at home.  The troops who fight on the front lines more commonly feel a sort of grudging respect for the enemy, even a sense of kinship that comes with sharing danger in common.

Part of the persistence of war, in other words, stems from the ignorant passions of those who most eagerly seek it and trumpet its heroic wonders even as they stand (and strive to remain) safely on the sidelines.

Both Hedges and Gray also speak to the dangerous allure of war, its spectacle, its excitement, its awesomeness.  Even the most visceral and “realistic” war films, like the first thirty minutes of “Saving Private Ryan,” represent war as a dramatic spectacle.  War films tend to glamorize combat (think of “Apocalypse Now,” for example), which is why they do so little to put an end to war.

One of the best films to capture the dangerous allure of war to youth is “Taps.”  I recall seeing it in 1981 at the impressionable age of eighteen.  There’s a tiny gem of a scene near the end of the film when the gung ho honor guard commander, played by Tom Cruise before he was TOM CRUISE, mans a machine gun.  He’s firing against American troops sent to put down a revolt at a military academy, but Cruise’s character doesn’t care who he’s firing at.  He’s caught in the rapture of destruction.

He shouts, “It’s beautiful, man.  Beautiful.”  And then he himself is shot dead.

This small scene with Cruise going wild with the machine gun captures the adrenaline rush, that berserker capacity latent in us, which acts as an accelerant to the flames of war.

War continues to fascinate us, excite us.  It taps primal roots of power and fear and ecstasy all balled together.  It masters us, hence its persistence.

If and when we master ourselves, perhaps then we’ll finally put an end to war.