Reflections on a Century of Flight

Challenging the View from the Superfortress

By Sean Howard | 2004-04-01 12:00:00

Speaking at NASA Headquarters in Washington on January 14, President George W. Bush announced "a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system." Acting with divine blessing, and on behalf of all "mankind,"America was ready to "take the next steps": to "build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon, and to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own."

Four weeks earlier, the President led national, and highly nationalistic, celebrations to mark the centenary of the brief hop into history of the Wright brothers' Flyer. Speaking at Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina, Bush declared: "The Wright brothers' invention belongs to the world, but the Wright brothers belong to America. We take special pride in their qualities of discipline and perseverance, optimism and imagination....There is something in the American character that always looks for a better way, and is unimpressed when others say it cannot be done."

As living proof of this indomitable spirit, the President introduced a number of "well-known heroes": three astronauts - Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and John Glenn - and Chuck Yeager, praised by the Commander-in-Chief not as the first pilot to break the sound-barrier but as "one of the greatest fighter pilots ever."

This emphasis on Yeager's proficiency in killing (a distinction shared by most of the Apollo astronauts) drew candid attention to the decisive contribution of aviation to the unprecedented carnage of the twentieth century. The century of flight marked the dawn of the space and nuclear age.

On December 11, six days before the centenary, Vice President Dick Cheney opened a major extension of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. The star exhibit of the Udvar-Hazy Centre in Virginia is none other than the Enola Gay, the B-29 "Superfortress" that dropped a bomb that destroyed a city - and kept on killing.

In his remarks, the Vice President made no mention of the bomber. Nor did he introduce its pilot, Paul Tibbetts. With no trace of irony, he stated instead, "At our best, Americans are a confident and resolute people. When we set our minds to great objectives, we see the work through. The Air and Space Museum...shows what can be accomplished with confidence, perseverance and unity of purpose."

What kind of perseverance?

Indeed it does - but does it also show the results of such enterprise? The Enola Gay - lovingly restored to full glory in a ten-year, 300,000 "man-hour" project - is displayed on eight-foot-high stands to enable, according to a Smithsonian fact sheet, "viewing from various levels." One view, however, has been carefully excluded. Despite the urgings of numerous peace groups, led by survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the text accompanying the exhibit contains no mention of the human and environmental costs of the bombing. Visitors instead are shown a dry technical summary of the plane's specifications and performance, together with a one-sentence reference to an infamous date, "On August 6, 1945, this Martin-built B-29-45-MO dropped the first atomic weapon used in combat on Hiroshima, Japan."

Justifying this arid narrative, the Museum Director, retired Air Force General John Dailey, explained that extraneous information was not provided "for other airplanes." In an eerie echo of Robert Oppenheimer's description of the atom bomb as "technically sweet," Dailey added: "From a consistency standpoint, we focus on the technical aspects."

Such a stance doubtless chills many readers - but is the claim even true? The text of the display makes no reference to many relevant facts - casualty figures, for example. It does, however, note that the B-29 "found its niche" in the Pacific theatre of war. Is that a fact or rather a claim of appropriateness, an expression of rightness, tool-meets-task? For Bush and Cheney, it is also doubtless a 'fact' that, thanks to God and history, America has found its niche as the world's economic, technological and military superfortress and, thus, that it is only right to extend that niche into the heavens.

Such a voyage of discovery will, of course, be wrapped not only in the stars and stripes but also the beguiling civilian mantle of NASA, with its declared dedication to 'peaceful' exploration. Such, indeed, has been NASA's niche from the beginning: to present an elaborate façade to the world, blocking the real control room - the Pentagon - from view. Just as the Apollo astronauts were recruited almost entirely from seasoned military crews, so NASA itself is decisively shaped by the military obsession with full spectrum dominance: land, air, sea and, ever more importantly, space.

On December 15, two anti-war protesters were arrested for throwing red paint at the shining silver Superfortress in Virginia. A group of Hiroshima survivors were in attendance. One of them, Minoru Nishino, told reporters: "This is the second time I have seen the Enola Gay. The first time was...when I saw it flying high in the sky. When I saw the Enola Gay today, I was overcome by anger."

The Brazilian pioneer of flight, Alberto Santos Dumont (claimed by his country as the inventor of the aeroplane), was overcome by another emotion - despair - as he witnessed the rapid militarization of flight. Before the "bomberdark skies" of World War II, he took his own life.

Anger and despair are natural responses to the terrible, dwarfing violence now carried on the wings of technology. But a counteroffensive is also required. Peaceful protest and powerful symbolism - soaking the murder-machines in 'blood' - is a vital start. So is the courage to insist that the dark side of technological progress be seen and confronted.

In 1940, the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore indicted the airplane as the supreme symbol of arrogant modernity. He wrote,

"Satanic machine, you enable man to fly.
Land and sea had fallen to his power:
All that was left was the sky"

After passages prophetic both of Hiroshima - "the fire/of furious total destruction" - and even 9/11 - "panic spreads down from the skies" - Tagore wrote:

"This thing has not been blessed by the life-divinity.
The sun disowns it, neither does the moon feel any affinity."

What better words to place beside the Enola Gay - or outside NASA Headquarters?

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2004

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2004, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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