Opening on Armed Forces Day at the Texas State History Museum in Austin was the IMAX production, "Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag." To commemorate the occasion, the Air Force was on hand to take minds off what was happening on the ground in Iraq. The public was invited to cross into the blue.
Under a hot sun in the museum plaza, several Air Force officers idled around a bare table. They chatted mostly among themselves, as the heat and absence of much to see in the plaza discouraged museum-goers from lingering there. A few families arranged their children for photos in front of a 15-foot mini-jet replica and then headed quickly for shade. Occasionally, the officers changed the radio station that thumped from the blue and silver "Raptor Truck" parked behind them. One officer said that normally the media center in back of the customized SUV provided an interactive simulated flying mission designed for children. As a museum official explained to me later, the simulation game was not interacting with children that day because it was broken, and the table was bare because the Air Force had been specifically instructed by the museum to not use the occasion for recruitment purposes.
I was pleased, having attended the event ready to hand reality check fliers to kids who seemed wowed by military glitz. Maybe I could just go home. Stopping inside the museum for a drink of water, I saw a poster urging the public to "meet a real life fighter pilot" at a talk following one of the IMAX showings. I stayed.
To a room full of family folks, about half of whom were young children, two fighter pilots, one retired and the other a Lieutenant Colonel who had appeared in the film as an Aggressor pilot, spoke and took questions. The older officer spoke first, describing his tour during the Vietnam War and explaining that Red Flag was developed as an intensive training program to address the high death ratio of pilots in Vietnam. The program aimed to make pilots better able to handle the complex communications input they receive during flying missions in order to be "better prepared to go to war." Someone asked if he'd ever been ejected from his jet during combat, and he recounted in detail such an occasion, the images from that event seared into his memory. "Basically," he concluded, "what you're trying to do is survive -- do your mission and get home."
The younger fighter pilot made no bones about his belief that he was defending freedom and democracy around the world through military force. In answer to questions that centered on the dazzling technical aspects of the F-15 as portrayed in the IMAX production, he stressed the vital importance of trust that develops between pilot and flight crew, and the precision necessary for their missions.
I asked the pilots why thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed during the shock-and-awe phase of the US invasion if bombs were so precise. The older pilot avoided my gaze. The younger pilot softened his voice so I would understand: "We could have just nuked them, but we try to make combat more humane." Smiling, he hastened to add, "Maybe that sounds like a mixed message, but I never want to kill somebody." He claimed that Iraqi forces inhabited schools and hospitals purposely to endanger civilians. Fighter pilots tried very hard, he said, "to just take out certain targets." He defended to the core the actions of the US, which he called "a Christian nation, if you will."
The red flags one would expect his comments to raise in that setting didn't materialize. Instead, a young mother rose to thank the pilots for their brave service in defense of freedom. There was applause, and the officers stayed to sign autographs.
The IMAX production similarly blends fact and script. The story focuses on one pilot whose hero and mentor was his grandfather, a decorated fighter pilot during WWII. The film opens with a rich, orchestral soundtrack behind close-ups of framed photographs of the grandfather in wartime. "When I was a kid," says the grown grandson in voiceover, "I thought he must have won the war all by himself."
Red Flag takes place at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and involves not only US F-15 fighters, but also German, Israeli, Canadian and British fighter jets and pilots. According to the film, fighter pilots who survive their first 10 missions are likeliest to survive many more. So, exercises are designed to give pilots a 10-mission dose of practice in war games played out high above the desert, with pilots taking turns as good guys and bad guys. For their final practice mission, live ordnance is used to bomb "enemy" machinery on the ground. The climax of the film is replete with fiery slow motion explosions that show us everything except the gruesome, charred remains of people and neighborhoods blown apart in real life war.
Exiting the theatre, I heard an older man remark to his grandson, who was mimicking the explosions, "Wasn't that great?" Despite the museum's good intentions, the IMAX show is a recruitment tool, no question. And any medium that glorifies the technology of war while omitting its bloody consequences is fraudulent.
As though to address this omission, the film closes with a final voiceover by the young protagonist: "My grandfather said being a fighter pilot was the best job on earth. He also said that going to war was the worst thing he could imagine. I would have to say he was right on both counts." Explain, if you will, grandfather and grandson, why you continue to do the best job of the worst thing you can imagine.
Susan Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth and is an associate member of Veterans for Peace in Austin, Texas. Her columns have been published in the Austin American-Statesman and Common Dreams. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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