Should St.John's Compete for a NATO Base?

By Camille Fouillard | 1986-12-01 12:00:00

It's a St. John's Saturday morning, 10:05 a.m., and the neighborhood buzz of activity is shattered. In the space of a single beat of a song, the roaring, tearing howl builds from nowhere to a hellish pitch. The instinct is to throw oneself to the ground. Some do. Crows whirl, the hair on cats stands on end, Mary Lynn's 3-month-old baby goes rigid. Seconds later, and the passing Tornado fighter jet is just distant thunder. The Armageddon Boys are here, practicing their Theatre of War over our quiet "nuclear free" neighborhood.

I say over, but from hillside homes, it's common to look uneasily down onto the aircraft. More frightening are the ones which creep up unannounced from behind the hills, ahead of their own sound--maybe 30 tons at supersonic speeds of 800 or so miles an hour, usually a few yards above treetops, grazing them at times. Supersonic speeds mean supersonic booms, which can shatter windows, crack the foundations of buildings, and blow car windshields to bits in all directions. Sometimes the jets fly in pairs or formations of three and four, black and tight-turning. No wonder they collide from time to time.

These bomber jet assaults come perhaps a dozen times or more in a morning, then nothing for days or weeks. The experience is the very opposite of an air show's orchestrated buildup. It comes from any direction, at any time. For a moment, we are truly out of our wits. You can't cover your ears while breastfeeding, Mary Lynn discovers.

Soon there will be more low-level flights. Europeans have protested so loudly, especially after a Baroque cathedral crumbled from repeated overflights in West Germany, that their governments have decided to export the flights here. Pilots must train over "realistic" terrain.

It also seems likely that Fort Pepperell will be reactivated to NATO-base status. The Department of National Defence (DND) has stated in a publicity prochure which aims to sell the whole of the Avalon Peninsula for the "Deep Strike" Tactical Fighter and Weapons Training Centre, that facilitaties will be up to par with the Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada or the Cold Lake Base in Alberta.

The picture being sold to NATO countries is not the same one we are getting. Just practicing, they say. But these screaming jets are real Holocaust-toting things. Is it four Hiroshimas in the mini-nukes the Tornadoes have readied for them? We have been assured that none of the flight training is in a nuclear mode.

However, the nuclear/conventional war argument becomes fuzzy with Deep Strike weaponry. When does a conventional war turn into a nuclear war? There's the conventional Incredible Hulk, which weighs 25 tons and can do as good a job as any of the "theater" nuclear weapons. Somewhere between those two lies the "nuclear threshold." There is no shortage of First Strike (or offensive) training in the Deep Strike war strategy.

The number of bombing ranges being proposed for the peninsula varies from 2 to 4. For well over a year, the Newfoundland government and the CAF Commanding Officer stated repeatedly that only smoke bombs and no live ammunition would be used on these hands-off ranges. No mention of the use of Tordon on the bombing ranges, as has been done in Cold Lake, Alberta. Tordon (Agent White) is a herbicide used in the Vietnam War along with Agent Orange. It's 30 percent Picloram, which builds up and takes a long time to break down. For the moment, we can worry about a bit of nausea, skin rashes, red eyes, and a few miscarriages. It's people two generations later who'll have the various cancers and disorders of the reproductive system caused by Tordon. By then, few will be fussing about the fish, berries, or rabbits we can no longer eat.

Nor is there mention of the effects of the radio frequency electromagnetic radiation given off by the jamming equipment on these jets--effects that include cataracts and male sterility.

The aerial antics of these enthusiastic young men, what they represent, and the gut reactions they induce, have never been properly reported. For the same terrain-following, radar-evading reasons that they fly so low here, they are almost impossible to film from the ground. So beyond relaying an occasional Kilbride farmer's protests, the (soothing) rhetoric of the government, or misrepresenting the concerns of interest groups (such as the "child dominated" peace groups), the media have missed the phenomena. Part of the problem is that the CBC reporter who covers stories on the military is the Commander of the Platoon of the Rangers. One of his duties is to provide information to the military.

So we continue to be uninformed, unless we plough vigilantly through military documents. Then you must be able to decipher the language. Who would guess that "soft targets" and "collateral damage" actually mean human beings?

If these pilots in their Tornadoes, Phantom IIs and Alpha Jets were to fly as low over other Canadian cities and regions as they do over us, it would certainly force a shift in public awareness. But we are told that our area is ideal because our population numbers are low.

It would be wrong to pretend that everyone dislikes the planes or the development. Bob is a veteran who had been a prisoner of war for over two years--an experience he will never talk about. These planes confirm for him that it was all worth it. "We need a good war to clear the air. Those of you who don't want this are just afraid that you might have to get a job and work." Better-dead-than-red talk which leaves me wondering whether we can turn the whole culture around in time.

This remains small "c" conservative country. Warm, generous, and patriotic people, many of them jobless. The fishing industry is in a shambles. The oil industry seemingly busted before it boomed. Difficult to get the government out of its mega-project mode. The Base will bring jobs, so many who don't like the planes and don't want the Base won't say so. They want a job. Or their sister, neighbor, or son does. "Drop the bomb and give us something to live for!" cries the graffiti of jobless youth.

So the government uses job blackmail to sell us this development. All kinds of figures are being bandied about: "The base will bring 800 jobs (or 3500 jobs) and $500 million (or $2 billion) to the local economy. We have yet to see a breakdown of these figures but we are assured that the experts are working on it.

The government's consultation with us amounts to talk with handpicked or self-appointed leaders--a perverse comment on the "democracy" we all see threatened. Some insist on stating their support after having heard only one side of the story. No mention ever of the resolution passed by the majority of our communities unanimously opposing this development.

There are the inevitable studies, exercises in public relations, looking at one effect or another and sidestepping the real issues. They are done years after the onset of the development. One of the "independent" Task Forces spends a few hours listening to our story. One member sleeps: "I'm sorry. I never got to open the file until 1:30 last night when I got to my hotel room." The interim report, in spite of its many factual errors, patronizes. It recommends that we be taught "to cope."

I think of one of the press conferences held to announce that the first of the megabucks --$93 million--will be spent to upgrade the facilities to attract NATO countries to come and train in our true North strong and free. No coincidence, of course, that it is late June just as legislative sessions close for the summer months. Nor that it is mid-Friday afternoon and there has been virtually no publicity about this. Nor will there be.

The Commanding Officer of the Base has been selected to read out the statement of the Federal Minister of Justice. "I cannot answer that question," he proclaims later on. "My role is not a political one." He does strike most who meet him as a sincere and honest man, though you wonder whether it's possible that he could know so little. When a question arises about whether we need these War Games--why is $40 million being spent on the military every hour in the U.S. when so many people in the world are hunger?--fists pound on the table insisting that this happy occasion not be marred by such questions. "Could you please talk to me afterwards about your concerns?" The rest of us, like me, resort to heckling rather than asking questions.

Sometimes the odds seem laughable: The garage and bake sale to head off the holocaust. The whole country is up in arms (so to speak) about the cruise missile, yet testing goes ahead. Mammoth demonstrations elicit Pentagon statements about how public pressure will never influence foreign policy. We continue with our quiet monthly vigils. We set up a booth at the Base-sponsored Trade Show. Working one-on-one is where it often happens. Our poll in the Avalon mall confirms that most people are not too keen about being in a war zone.

Camille Fouillard does community development work in Labrador. The research involved gathering information on proposed activities for NATO as well as the testimonies of people from Scotland, West Germany, Nevada, Northern Alberta/Saskatchewan, and Québec/Labrador who live with low-level flight training over their homes.

Peace Magazine Dec 1986-Jan 1987

Peace Magazine Dec 1986-Jan 1987, page 30. Some rights reserved.

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