fleet week came to san francisco this weekend. most years it just comes and goes; i hear the jets roar across the sky for a few days, and i imagine the ships docked in the bay and the crowds, and i stay home and think nothing more of it.
this year was different, not in the sense that i actually went, but in the sense that i thought about it.
elaine and i were at a friend’s outdoor birthday BBQ on sunday when the aerial exhibition was taking place. it was a beautiful, clear, Indian Summer day, the warm air a welcome friend, soon to depart for distant shores. as we drank and ate and chatted on the patio by the apartment-complex pool, the blue angels flew overhead.
for the first 30 minutes or so, we just heard the jets. at high altitude, and flying near the speed of sound, they’re easy to hear, but hard to see—blue phantoms in a blue sky. at some point, the building we were in (not too far from pacific heights) got buzzed by one jet, then two, then four in formation. it’s a spectacular, exciting experience to have those metal birds blast past at 500 mph, in tight formation.
but then i thought, if i were in Iraq or Afghanistan or Tel Aviv, for that matter, how would i feel about those jets? would they fill me with excitement, or would it be fear? would i associate them with security or terror?
fleet week is a modern-day, US-style equivalent of tanks and soldiers parading through Red Square (or even jets flying over it). in the past, when i’ve seen images of military "celebration" on the news, i’ve always thought how openly militaristic other nations are, and how we tend to be a bit more dignified about our arsenals, our power, our supposed dominance.
maybe we do show a level of restraint when it comes to the classic large-scale military parade, but it doesn’t remove the fact that we are celebrating instruments of destruction. on one level, the flight of the blue angels demonstrates humankind’s mastery over the elements—our ability to overcome gravity, to fly even though we weren’t born to do so, and to do it with incredible power and grace. it could also been seen to symbolize national achievement, which is nothing at all to be ashamed of.
at the same time, we built these things as weapons of war. in light of all the horrible things happening in the world, it’s just so desirable to conveniently forget. it’s easier to think of birds in flight, of courage, of leaving the earth behind and flying away into a blue sky, unencumbered by the weight of our weakness.
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