Monday, 30 July 2007

Plane spotting with attitude

I have to confess to a liking for World War Two aircraft. Up close there's something about the smell of the fuel and the sound of the engines that comes close to being a motorcycle with wings.

This affinity between bikes and planes is nothing new - many bike clubs were started after the war by aircrew veterans . In fact even the name of the most famous bike club in the world is inspired by that of various USAAC squadrons.

Which is a long winded explanation of why I found myself this weekend at Duxford for the American Historic Air Show. I went to see Mustangs, Thunderbolts and Flying Fortresses, both up close and in flight. I wasn't disappointed in this, but what I also got was a full-on propaganda assault from the current US Air Force.

There were various static displays all over the airfield by USAF units, and the historic fly-pasts were outnumbered by contemporary jets and helicopters. These were accompanied with a commentary on the PA that made numerous references to operations 'Iraqi Freedom' and 'Enduring Freedom.'

I hadn't signed up for this, and resented the constant spurious connections with the present war on terror and US contribution in the Second War World. The not-so implied message was 'we were the defenders of freedom then and have been ever since'.

Despite the taste for old planes and history in general, I am generally of the view that war is not something to be glorified and have opposed every war our country has been involved within my lifetime.

But the Second War World occupies a special place for me.
Perhaps just because it is the war of my parents' generation. Whilst other wars both before and after, generally seem like imperialist adventures and senseless wastes of lives, the Second War World can claim at least in some sense to be truly a People's War. I know that many aspects of it weren't - just think of the war in the Far East. And the motives of many of the leaders were doubtless the same as those of other generations of politicians and generals. But for many of the ordinary men and women involved, they were fighting to defend democracy against fascism.

Which is why I find it offensive to see the recent adventures in Iraq spoken of in the same way. It is more appropriate to link them to the wars of the nineteenth century when Britain was the number one imperial superpower, carving up the world for its own interest under the cloak of morality as an international policeman.

There were many service people and their families from nearby US airbases at the Duxford show, both in and out of uniform. And they were not bad people. A little too clean-cut, smiley and preppy for my tastes, but not bad people. Drinking beers and eating hotdogs in the sunshine, there was certainly nothing menacing about them. I'm not sure that I would have felt the same way about similar numbers of off-duty British squaddies.

Little snatches of overheard conversation showed that they took themselves and their perceived mission to the world of protecting 'our values' extremely seriously. Clearly they believe themselves to be in the tradition of Stephen Ambrose's 'Citizen Soldiers'. They may well be more naive and deluded rather than bad, but either way they are wrong; these days US Forces are as likely to be oppressors as they are liberators.

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