of pitfalls I've avoided sometimes arise unexpectedly. I recently
left a Chicago hotel to the roar of jet engines reverberating in
the canyons between the high-rises. I was in my car headed for the
Eisenhower expressway just west of the Loop when the roar returned
with such force that something in the dashboard rattled. I craned
my neck until I found its source: four sleek, dark blue F/A-18 Hornets,
their wingtips almost touching, flew over the north Loop at about
1500 feet and disappeared behind the maze of tall buildings. A few
minutes later two of the planes reappeared, one following the other,
at what appeared to be an altitude possibly below that of the Sears
Tower observation deck a quarter-mile south their flight path. The
planes snaked their way almost between the tallest of the
skyscrapers and flew back out over the lake.
I thought. The Chicago Air and Water Show was coming in two days,
and the Blue Angels aerobatic team, an annual favorite of the show,
Those amazing technological marvels have always excited me, just
like they do millions of other Americans. My excitement at seeing
them waned quickly, however.
remembered the time, over twenty years ago when the massive delivery
of new F/A-18's that the Reagan Administration had ordered was nearing,
I had traveled to Glenview Naval Air Station to take a test. You
see, I had the bug to fly one of those sleek machines of incredible
power. At that time, if you wanted to talk to the Navy about playing
with their toys, you first had to take a written test kind of like
an SAT except it had an extra section filled with diagrams of the
horizon seen out of the windscreen and multiple choices of what
attitude the plane was in.
took the test and apparently did quite well on it. As you probably
know, test taking is a skill in its own right. Some are particularly
gifted, and I appear to be one of them. It seemed I had passed the
is where good judgment saved me from that aforementioned pitfall.
the time I was married with a baby on the way. Upon reflection the
descriptions of training and deployment conjured scenes of emotional
horror in my imagination. Gone for months or even a year at a time
I would return from sea a complete stranger to my child. Getting
reacquainted with a wife who had grown accustomed to my absence,
and who, out of necessity was fully capable of living without me,
was disturbing. I guess I was quite naïve about my dreams of
naval aviation because this wasn't what I had in mind.
the circumstances my response had to be, "Thanks, but no thanks."
ended up in a much less exotic occupation, to say the least.
have passed and over that time my views of those sleek planes and
the (mostly) guys that fly them have shifted. I now see something
I didn't see before. It isn't about aerobatics or shiny blue paint,
or traveling a thousand miles per hour or zooming in a vertical
climb to the edge of space.
planes are simply killing machines, and the folks that fly them,
no matter how skilled, dedicated, or bright, are puppets.
the carriers on which they ride, F/A-18's are tools for delivering
bombs and other ordnance onto places where other people live or
work. If those people are working to attack Americans minding their
own business at home, the pilots' work would be honorable, but you
don't need to transport such complex weaponry halfway around the
world to attack aggressors. After all, aggressors need some proximity
to be a threat.
other problem with being an operator of one of those sleek jets
is that one is not an owner. Someone else tells you where to go
and who to bomb, and the agreement you entered into says that you
don't get to say no, not if you want to go on playing with the toys.
I think "puppet" is fairly apt.
pilots have little option but to rationalize what they do as "good,"
and their military and civilian superiors who tell them who to kill
as, "wise and well-informed." While we know this last
is empirically false, humans have a tremendous capacity to lie to
themselves when that's the only bridge required to get them to what
they want. In this case, pilots get to play with toys that are at
the very top of the grownup-toy food chain. Like politicians and
bureaucrats who love the power they wield, rationalizing any evil
is a natural part of the human condition.
Blue Angels perform thrilling feats of synchronized flight at airshows,
but those games are basically just a circus to keep us enthralled.
The purpose of those aircraft is to drop death from the air, no
more and no less, and this power resides in the hands of people
whose own interests create a murderous conflict of interest.
pitfall I avoided wasn't just the alienation from my family that
sea duty would entail. I also avoided becoming one of these rationalizers.
I'm no better a person than any of them, and I'm sure I would have
made a pact with the devil himself if that was all that stood between
me and strapping one of those planes on my back and hitting the
afterburners. It's an experience that on a practical level can't
would have become a different person. Given that I really like who
I am today and am proud of my insights that parallel those of the
many LRC columnists who I so admire, to become that Navy pilot would
have been a great loss to me in some metaphysical sense. I would
have remained, probably forever, among the ranks of the blind.
course, like any good story there's a tiny bit of irony. I didn't
discover until decades later that the Naval officer at NAS Glenview
was, shall we say, less than truthful. If you go to Pensacola and
observe some of the men training to fly high performance jets like
the Hornet, a consistent theme is evident. They are all about eight
inches shorter than I am (I'm a bit over 6’2"). It seems that
being tall is a certain disqualifier for flying those jets because
space is a premium when such a machine is designed. But they're
always looking for a few good men to fly the far less glamorous
fixed-wings and helicopters…
take away two morals from this. First, the folks that staff the
state's apparatus always over-promise
and under-deliver. If you see everything they offer through that
lens, you'll never be disappointed. Second, great care must be exercised
when pursuing something of great interest, lest one's principles
end up in the landfill.