By Steve Williams-Baggarly, Norfolk Catholic Worker
The annual Air Show at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach is the Navy’s largest open house in North America. Some quarter of a million people attend it over three days, and this year it hosted some very special guests—all 6500 fifth graders in Virginia Beach Public Schools. All were students in the school system’s STEM program (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and were invited to the base on the first day, otherwise closed to the public, for interactive science displays along with their own private Air Show.
Air Shows are the military’s biggest public relations and recruiting tool, a powerfully seductive display of some of the most sophisticated technology on the planet. Our nation is engaged in endless war with the entire globe as battlefield, and Air Shows help the military to forge closer ties with the civilian population and to prepare our youth to join in future wars.
When I learned that this year’s show was targeting fifth-graders, I was determined to have a vigil at the main gate holding signs encouraging students to think about science outside the military context that they would experience inside the base. I contacted friends to come join me and, as buses poured in the gate from all over the city, three of us held signs for the students: “STEM for Peace not War,” “Let’s Build a World Without Weapons,” “Technology for Peace not War,” and “Engineer a Future without War.” Ten and eleven year old heads turned and watched us from open bus windows and some little hands returned our peace signs with their own. When the traffic didn’t include buses, we switched signs: “Air Shows Teach Children Mass Violence,” “Nonviolence not Empire,” and “Air Shows Glorify Violence.”
The next day the Air Show was open to the public and, though I’d been banned from the base years earlier, for having joined friends climbing first atop an F-22 and then onto a B-52 to hold anti-war banners, a friend and I went in to see what kind of instruction had been offered to the entire fifth grade of the largest city in the state.
We parked on a vast lot in front of hangers filled with F/A-18 Hornet Strike Fighters that are stationed at Oceana while the aircraft carriers they ship out on are in port at Norfolk Naval Base. After going through metal detectors to ensure that, ironically, no weapons were brought into the show, we found even more F/A-18’s were lined up for close inspection, and an Army Chinook Helicopter and a C-17 Globemaster transport plane from Dover Air Force Base open to lines of people walking through them. A Gatling-style gun from the nose of an F/A-18, which can fire up to 6000 rounds per minute, a four-man mini submarine used by Navy Seals to approach targets by water, an Army Humvee and portable radar, Seahawk and Sea Stallion Navy helicopters, an Army Apache helicopter, and other hardware were attended by military personnel who educated the public on their use. These surrounded booths of military memorabilia and souvenirs, carnival type foods, and a monument to the Twin Towers and 9/11, the 15th anniversary of which would be remembered the next day.
The STEM program still had four locations set up, one for each subject area, where kids could do hands-on activities. One entire hanger was filled with STEM exhibits. There, several Naval facilities and military contractors sponsored a robotics exhibit, a 3-D printer used to make custom tools, and simple demonstrations of magnetism and the physics of floatation and submersion. Sharing the hanger were two Navy river patrol boats brimming with machine guns that the kids could swing around and pretend to aim and fire.
Amid the plethora of scientific and technological information available to children at the show, one glaring omission was the purpose for the existence of all the high-tech weaponry on display. Nowhere was their killing vocation acknowledged. Nowhere was the reality for the people on the receiving end of their bullets and bombs even hinted at; the deafening explosions, quaking earth, flying debris, smoke and fire—the instant loss of life, spurting blood, charred flesh, pain and shock, shattering fear, the desperate search for loved ones, and the soul-rending howls of new orphans and widows. No one mentioned the inherently indiscriminate nature of air strikes—that every time a bomb is dropped, a wing launcher activated, or a door gunner opens fire, that women and children, civilians and innocents, are as likely as anything to be blown to shreds. Nowhere were photos of decapitated, dismembered, or mangled bodies in Middle Eastern towns, villages, and deserts. Nowhere was posted the definition of war crimes.
Neither was acknowledged the brutalization of those who do the killing, never mind the possibility that any enthusiastic fifth graders, successfully recruited, might one day come home in a body bag, with traumatic brain injury, without legs, or suffering from moral injury, sexual assault, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and contemplating suicide. None of the realities of war made an appearance so as not to discourage potential future warriors.
Rather, rapt attention was paid throughout the day to a sky filled with airborne performers that included vintage aircraft, an Army Special Operations parachute team, and F-22 Raptors from Langley Air Force Base in Hampton. But the Hornets were the real stars. The Air Show’s centerpiece, the daredevil Blue Angels, are F/A-18’s that, along with Oceana F/A-18 squadrons, took turns rolling, flipping, “walking,” falling, and zooming by in tight formation. Appropriate, for at the same time, other Oceana F/A-18’s, flying from carriers in the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea, were likely dropping bombs on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and/or Libya. Oceana F/A-18’s have been workhorses of Naval firepower since soon after 9-11—when the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq set the Middle East on fire. Since then, some 4 million people have been killed, tens of millions maimed or traumatized, more millions made into refugees, and large swaths of the region turned incubator for ISIS.
In essence, Air Shows are religious assemblies. On the flight line, deep reverence for the weapons was palpable. There, God’s attributes as the source of freedom and security, peace and prosperity, were ascribed to the machinery of death. The unwritten Air Show creed is that the planes and choppers make possible life as we know it, and we owe them our allegiance. Yet biblically speaking, they are “the work of our hands,” idols in our religion of national security. And at the Air Show, children can actually touch them, sit in their seats, pull their triggers, and run their hands over their bombs. As Americans we ultimately trust in the killing power of our weaponry to save us, and Air Shows are one awe-inspiring way we hand this faith on to our children—one bus load of fifth graders at a time.
Leaving the STEM display in the hanger, my friend and I left the show and were walking back through the parking lot when security stopped us and placed us under arrest. They held us for a couple hours during which time they searched our vehicle in vain for any banner that we may have had plans to unfurl. My friend was let go and invited to watch the rest of the show. I was given another lifetime ban and bar from a long list of Navy installations in the area and charged with trespassing. I face 6 months in jail when I go to federal court in Norfolk on November 7th.
In 1979 St. John Paul II made a plea to young people in Ireland that I pray would echo at every Air Show and in every Virginia Beach fifth grade classroom; “Do not follow any leaders who train you in the ways of inflicting death…Give yourselves to the service of life, not the work of death.”