aNewDomain — Many events have conspired to push me toward my current attitudes regarding war and peace. Two of them happened in January 1993, on the same day.
One of them was meeting the B1 bomber. The other was meeting my co-workers.
So today, I took my son to the Lowry Air and Space Museum. Lowry was a training base until the mid 1990s, when it was closed. Much of its infrastructure went to the city. A lot of it is still intact, too. The hangar where they trained airmen to load munitions onto planes is still there. Now it houses the museum.
But I’m not just a tourist at Lowry me. I used to live there, work there. I trained for something on that base — something I’m not permitted to tell you much about, though everything I’m not allowed to tell you happens to be published, if you’re interested, in Jane’s Defense Quarterly.
But anyway, that one day in January 1993 when both the B1 and the coworkers met me, I was touring the base with some higher ups. And we all ended up in Hangar 1, home of the B1 bomber.
The B1 bomber is still there in Hangar 1.
The racks of wooden, deactivated and otherwise fake missiles are gone now. The A10 I remember is only a memory. The wing of the B52 that lived inside back then is now a whole B52 that lives outside.
It would fit in the hangar, sure it would. But where would the tourists walk?
Anyway. I’d forgotten about that B1. It’s a crazy piece of engineering, and it was my kid’s favorite plane of the day.
The B1 has swing wings like an F15, the biggest aircraft ever to feature them. And it was built to go Mach 2, though nobody could fly it that fast.
Back in the 1990s, the real mission of the B1 was to go a bit over the speed of sound at low altitude, to sneak in under radar, drop some bombs and then boogie on home.
By the time anyone saw the B1 bomber coming, it would too late to respond.
The B2 came along not much later — or maybe was there all long, just a better-kept secret. Maybe the B1 was never more than a beard. The B2 takes a different approach than the B1 does, too. You just never see it at all. Reaction time is irrelevant.
But here’s the thing. A single B1 bomber can carry 136,000 pounds of bombs and missiles. It can sling nuclear weapons on three internal rotating holders like revolving pistols; it can get in range and fire them all out. It can carry a whole suite of nuclear missiles, more than 20 of them on a single plane, in fact. Individually, each missile is capable of killing millions of people and devastating the planet’s climate for everyone else.
I guess this kind of a weapon system is really intended as a first-strike measure. Get in and out unseen, wipe out the enemy’s ability to fire their own weapons and figure a way out of a nuclear two-way. The idea is you cheat at the Kobayashi Maru: You find a way out of the no-win scenario of mutually assured destruction.
We haven’t done that yet, though, which I can only assume means no one with the power to make such things happens actually thinks that will work.
A lot of people seem to want us to deify or lionize veterans. They think we should worship each vet unconditionally as a hero. But I know too many vets to that. I mean, hell. I am one.
And despite the myths, we really are no better or worse than average.
It’s just that we get a lot more responsibility than most people do and at a much younger age, too. That’s why, you see, a lot of vets are so stunned on the outside that they are expected to work their way up some corporate ladder only to things that, compared with what we’ve been doing, seem awfully Mickey Mouse. We do dangerous things for a living.
As for me, the biggest sacrifice I ever made was to stand in a lot of lines. But you understand what I’m getting at, right?
People get into the military for all sorts of reasons. And those reasons almost never include heroism, work ethic or any great need to sacrifice actually or theoretically. Pro patria mori tattoos are a lot more uncommon than a lot of civilians might assume.
Remember that scene from “Stripes”when Sergeant Hulka asks the guys why they signed up? They all give answers that are banal as hell. There was a ton of truth in that.
And, after basic, I got assigned to train at Lowry. Part of the training was like this group therapy session. We went into a meeting room at the chapel and talked about our reasons for joining and what we thought life might be like after basic.
“Their job in basic,” the chaplain said, “was to make you all the same. But our job here is to get back the men and women Uncle Sam hired in the first place.”
Here are some of the reasons they gave:
One guy worked in a corner shop for his family.He was tired of getting robbed. He’d shot a robber in the face and didn’t know how to handle the guilt or the possibility they’d be arresting him. So he ran away. He’d actually just joined the Air Force to split town.
A woman said she was here because she couldn’t think of a career she could have on the outside that paid well and that didn’t involve any nudity.
“I had to get away from my parents’ discipline.”
“There weren’t any other jobs in my town.”
“I wanted to finish college and my family can’t afford it.”
Nobody said: “I’m here because I want to serve my country because this is the best country on Earth and because my Christian values require killing our enemies. God bless us one and all.”
Look, man. If you want that Army or that Air Force or that Navy, you first need to stop spending trillions of dollars on them. Only a real, all-volunteer force will get you there. Our volunteers today mainly aren’t: They’re coerced by things like a lack of social value out of uniform, an economy that’s no good for them, or by racism or sexism. Or by recruiters waving dollars under their noses. Want dollars, technical training, a career, respect, a profession?
It’s the kind of temptation that’s irresistable to lots of 20-year-olds who grew up, say, in the projects, or in any environment where there are no jobs and just unending, grinding poverty to look forward to.
You get the picture.
And all that spit-shined bullshit you hear? We all learn that later, maybe as a sop to our own consciences, maybe after constant exposure.
One thing the service is good at is getting us all churched up, by fair means or foul.
So, anyway, it’s January 1993. Here come my coworkers.
That night before the hangar tour, I’d pulled cleaning duty. I did the stairwells and all the concrete leading in and out of our dorms. I had a push-broom too big for the stairs and a mop bucket designed for hallways. It took me two hours but finally I shined that sucker up.
Smoke butts, dirt, candy wrappers, cockroaches, it didn’t matter. I swept it all up and scrubbed it all down.
The night I’m telling you about now was the evening right after the tour. There we were in our civilian clothes, heading in ones or twos or threes down to the Burger King. The only thing to do on post, really, was go to the BK and play Street Fighter.
There were three people ahead of me on the stairwell, two young men and a young woman. One of the guys spat in the stairwell.
That should be the end of the story. If it were, the moral would be that we’re trusting national security to people who spit indoors. But it’s not. Here’s what actually happened.
Exasperated and shocked, I spoke first. I said: “Did you just spit in my stairwell?”
That could also be the end of the story. They could have gone, “Oh, I don’t think it’s quite your stairwell even though you did clean it. Or, sorry about that. Or whatever” Over.
Instead, these three people actually threatened to murder me. Over spit.
One said: “I know you, Dias. I know which room is yours and who your roommate is. I’m going to kill you while you’re sleeping.”
That was a bit more than 20 years ago, a long time. Most of the people I knew back then now are eligible to retire if they’ve not left already. But the ones who are still in, well, they’re the long-timers, the career people. They’re the ones with the keys in their hands, the buttons under their fingers.
They’re the ones who get to decide. They get to decide, for example, whether to initiate the end of our existence suddenly and angrily, ending us all in a burst of white light that our brains are not fast enough to process into pain.
Now some of my colleagues were stand-up people. Fine specimens of humanity who, regardless of the reasons they signed up, found an ethic they could live up to.
Others, though, are of the type that thinks this person might be a reasonable candidate for a leadership position:
Well, okay, it takes all kinds.
But the very fact that the B1 Bomber even exists just terrifies me; it terrifies me beyond the capacity for any kind of rational thought.
That the B1 Bomber is just a part of a fleet of such vehicles, all ready to be laden with Armageddon at a moment’s notice, makes me need to change my shorts.
And the fact that just a few people in crisp blue uniforms stand between that Armageddon and us is even more terrifying. And it’s only augmented by the guy who wanted to borrow 20 dollar bills every Thursday night because he said that the stripper who was in love with him worked that day…
It’s true: Only a tiny minority of people have the war machine in harness and ready to obey hairdtrigger commands that end us, end everything.
Can you absolutely guarantee me that those people have our collective best interests at heart? Could one of the guys with the power to end everything in an angry rage we’ll never hear about be the same asshole who threatened to kill me in my sleep just because I didn’t like that he spat in the stairwell?
Anyway. Over the years, I’ve met a lot of the people who sat in the missile silos. Most of them were pretty good folks.
But they weren’t ethicists or geniuses, man.
And who in the hell would you want holding the nuclear trigger keys? Who in the whole goddamned world is qualified enough to hold that much death on a chain around their neck? Who’s qualified to sit down there in a hole with some other guy night after night, playing hand after hand after hand of Spades or Hearts?
I know about their contests, too. Tom Cruise starred in “Top Gun.” And then there’s “Top Hand,” which is a little less sexy. All the contests amount to is what crew can get their weapons airborne the quickest?
Today has been a weird day. A little memory-lane-ing, some fond reminiscences and, otherwise, a nagging sense of abject terror.
But this article is running long now, and I need to go and change my shorts.
For aNewDomain, I’m this section redacted.
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