I was in San Francisco on a recent Sunday, my visit coinciding with the U.S. Navy’s annual "Fleet Week" show of a portion of its arsenal of destructiveness. The most annoying part of this demonstration consisted of a prolonged buzzing of the city by at least five "Blue Angels" FA-18 fighter-bombers. This was not one of those common air-shows conducted at an airbase where Boobus Americanus could pay an admission fee for a show: in San Francisco, the entire city was the grandstand. Whether you cared to enjoy the simulated attack or not, you were subjected to the noisiest screeching, roaring, and ear-shattering sounds — with an occasional sonic boom thrown in for good measure — as these planes flew at housetop levels for a few hours. We had to keep covering our ears as these howling menaces flew a hundred feet above our heads. These planes fly in very close formation — they pride themselves in maintaining eighteen-inch separations from one another — which, on some past occasions, have led to deadly crashes. Had this occurred in San Francisco that day, hundreds of innocent people might have been added to the growing list of fungible victims of American air power throughout the world. The irresponsible nature of this undertaking was evident to any intelligent observer.
To characterize this air show as a form of entertainment is to misjudge its intended purpose. Like the annual May Day military parades conducted by the Soviet government, the objective of this exercise was to remind people of the disproportion of power that the state exercises over them. Should you harbor any sentiments of disobedience to state authority, this is what government officials have at their disposal to bring you back into line. At a time when it became known that a large body of American troops had been returned from Iraq to be deployed in American cities, the presence of such Navy hardware added to the intimidation. President Bush’s threat to members of Congress — as reported by one congressman — to impose martial law should they fail to pass the infamous corporate "bailout" measure, showed the effectiveness of menacing people with violence.
War has long since ceased to be just a confrontation between competing military forces. The days in which ordinary folk would bring their picnic lunches to the hillsides surrounding battlefields to watch the mutual organized slaughter of the Lower Ruritanian army by the Slobovian forces (and vice-versa) are embedded in our past. Since at least the American Civil War, military operations have expanded far beyond attacks on forts, ammunition depots, supply lines, and other tools of warfare. The general population — what statists like to refer to as the "citizenry" — have become the targets of choice, particularly those that congregate in major cities. Those who once thought that urban areas provided safety in numbers from military attacks, now find themselves considering the advantages of isolation in under-populated areas.
The state-conducted wars and genocidal practices that consumed some 200,000,000 lives in the twentieth century, were not directed at military troops alone, but at massive populations. Thus were militarily-meaningless cities such as Dresden and Wurzburg leveled by British and American bombers in raids that killed tens of thousands of people. The attacks on Dresden were defended, by the RAF’s noted war criminal, Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, on the grounds that there were no other cities left to bomb! The nightly "blitz" of London by German bombers served the same ends of generating massive fear among ordinary people. Likewise, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were conducted for the primary purpose of impressing upon the Soviet Union the nature of the weaponry possessed by the United States. Whoever was responsible for the attacks on 9/11 had in mind the terrorizing of ordinary Americans — at work in their places of employment — rather than the immobilization or destruction of military installations.
Flag-waving Americans are unable to deny the fear-inspiring purposes of warfare. The United States’ initial bombardments of Baghdad were carried out under the banner of "Shock and Awe," an admission that terrorizing local populations — not attacking military targets — was its purpose. What other objectives than inducing terror among innocent people could have served such constant and powerful bombardments?
While San Franciscans did not experience the death and devastation visited upon civilian Iraqis — or their counterparts in such places as Beirut and Kosovo — they were subjected to the terrorizing influences war machines provide — and are intended to provide. The war system is designed to remind people that their own governments can destroy them whenever they choose to do so, and that there are no effective repercussions to the state other than armed revolutions that end up replacing one gang of warlords with another equally rapacious group. As Randolph Bourne reminded us, war serves the intended purpose of keeping the state’s compliant herd under control. As can be attested to by anyone who has watched monster films, or movies such as Star Wars, there is something about a screeching, powerful monstrosity — whether of a biological or technological nature — that can arouse fear and conquer even the most courageous of wills. A sci-fi movie depicting shrieking pterodactyls flying just above the rooftops of San Francisco homes served the same purposes as the real-life Blue Angels: to make the audience fearful. As with motion pictures, perhaps the Navy was presenting us with a preview of coming attractions!
As history reminds us, such domestic use of the military is not beyond the realm of possibility. The aforementioned report of government plans to deploy armed troops across America make this a genuine threat. Along these lines, my experience in the siege of San Francisco brought to mind an experience I had in my college days. At my university, male students were required to take two years of R.O.T.C. training. I opted for the Air Force franchise. Our instructor — a regular Air Force major on leave to the school — gave us an unsettling assignment. We were given detailed maps of various American cities and told to plan a bombing attack on the target chosen for us. I was given San Francisco as my targeted city, and laid out my planned assault. In doing so, I wondered whether I was to concentrate on the port, railroad facilities, manufacturing plants, or just an all-out Dresden-like slaughter of the Bay area innocents.
More than half-a-century later, I still have occasion to think back to the time when a state university and the Air Force tried to train me to conduct an aerial attack on a major American city. Had other young men been given similar assignments; men who now flew the machines that might be employed in a real attack? My Sunday in San Francisco was a reminder that "terrorism" — which most Americans and their government like to pretend they oppose even as they expand upon and fine-tune its tools — is the modus operandi of an ever-engorged state system. As I joined with my temporary San Francisco neighbors to protect my ear-drums, I wondered whether all of this was intended as just another round of statist entertainment — like elections — or a prediction of more serious urban sieges. That such terrorizing acts were being carried out by people purporting to be "angels" confirmed Orwell’s understanding of how state power depends upon the corruption of language and, ultimately, of our thinking. Like the Air Force’s slogan "peace is our profession," the Navy has its "Blue Angels" [or, perhaps, "Black-and-Blue Angels"] with which to disguise violence as civility.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.