The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Patrick Jackson on Memorial Day

May 28, 2007

By almost any standard, the B-1 bomber is a pretty impressive piece of engineering. A ceiling of over 30,000 feet, maximum speed of about 950 miles per hour (somewhere around mach 1.25), capable of carrying a variety of conventional and nuclear bombs and delivering them quite precisely — not to mention a maximum range of 7,456 miles. All of this machinery, from advanced avionics to variable geometry wings (which are pulled back at an angle to achieve maximum speeds, as shown here), is propelled along by four massive jet engines generating 14,600 lbf each, a number which jumps to over 30,000 per engine when the afterburners are engaged.

Weapons porn aside, I want to emphasize two things about the B-1 bomber, a plane which even though not the most advanced aircraft in the U.S. bombing arsenal is in fact still in service:

1) this is an incredibly sophisticated piece of machinery designed for killing large numbers of people very quickly by quite literally raining destruction down on their heads.
2) when the afterburners are engaged, especially when the plane is racing by at a couple of hundred feet and then goes into a very steep climb to demonstrate what it is capable of doing, it’s extremely loud.

This second point was driven home to me yesterday at the New York Air Show at Jones Beach. Something of a Memorial Day tradition on Long Island, the air show — as is traditional for most air shows in the United States — featured a variety of military aircraft and their pilots and crews performing tricks and stunts, demonstrating formation flying, and just generally showing off their capacities and capabilities. I was there with my kids, hoping that the SPF-45 sunblock was sufficient to avoid a sunburn (and for the most part, it was — just forgot to spray the backs of my knees . . . ), watching the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team and the GEICO Skytypers (an impressive bunch, precision-flying vintage 1940 Navy fighter planes in order to scrawl out their airborne messages), when the announcer excitedly reported that the next act would involve a B-1 bomber — something of a rarity, since B-1s do not usually do airshows. In fact, this was their first appearance at this particular airshow. And the announcer sounded very thrilled, very anxious — and then we couldn’t hear hm, even though his voice was amplified by a pretty good sound system. The only thing that anyone along that beach could hear was the incessant roaring of the B-1’s engines as it whizzed by. Everyone had their hands clapped to their ears, and everyone was marveling at this immense feat of engineering as it passed us by and then came around for a second flyby, this time with its wings pulled back and its afterburners engaged so that it could climb rapidly away from us after its simulated “payload delivery.”

Now we could hear the announcer again. What he said at this point was striking: “Listen to that! That’s the sound of freedom right there! The sound of freedom!” And everyone cheered.

What the announcer was referring to, as I have said, was the noise produced by the engines as they fired their afterburners to make a rapid getaway. This is where point #1 becomes important to keep in mind: the main reason that an airplane has to make that kind of rapid ascent is to get out of the area where it has just dropped a bomb, either because a) the area is a combat zone and the plane is in danger of being shot down if it remains at low altitude for too long, or because b) the bomb in question is a nuclear bomb and the crew would prefer not to be irradiated in the blast. Or, of course, c) both. But in any event, the noise — the “sound of freedom” — is inextricably interwoven with the aircraft’s main function, which as I have said is to kill large numbers of people with great efficiency. This is what the crowds were cheering; this is what was primarily on display at the airshow: destructive capacity.

There are a lot of things I could say about this episode. Like Carol Cohn (JSTOR link), I could spend some time detailing the ways that the euphemistic language of “payload” and “operational range” works to conceal, or at least obscure, the fact that the object in question is a supremely effective killing machine. I could explore the naturalizing function performed by such displays — much like the patriotic rituals associated with major sporting events in the U.S. (especially with baseball, the “national pastime” — and try to trace the ways that their repetition serves to shore up a notion of the nation that is perpetually in need of such re-assertion and stabilization precisely because it lacks any kind of stable national center (shades here of Rogers Brubaker and David Campbell). These are both worthy exercises, but for the moment I am going to leave them to interested readers, or to those of my Ph.D. students working on similar themes and cases.

Instead, I want to comment briefly on the linkage of ‘freedom’ and the sound of the B-1 bomber, which seems to me to be among the most disquieting parts of the whole episode. “Disquieting” not because of the terrible pun in referring to four roaring afterburners as “disquiet,” but because of the blanket of legitimation that the use of the commonplace ‘freedom’ in this context throws over the military equipment and any of the missions for which it might be utilized. Note the shift in orthography here; by using single-qutation marks around the term ‘freedom’ I want to signal that I amo not so much referring to the word as to the concept, with the understanding that the concept in question is not some subjective property of mind as much as it is an intersubjective cultural resource that exusts for various speakers to utilize in various situations. We — at least, we Americans — have a vague idea what ‘freedom’ means and that it is both important and somehow intrinsically American, or at least that America intrinsically stands for ‘freedom’, although the consensus ends as soon as anyone tries to be any more specific about precisely which ‘freedoms’ are entailed in any given situation. In this way, ‘freedom’ is one of those rhetorical trump-cards available to Americans, a fact perhaps most bluntly demonstrated in President Bush’s first Empire Day speech (20 September 2001) when he answered the question “why do they [the terrorists] hate us?” by claiming simply that “they hate our freedoms.” End of discussion, as it were: ‘freedom’ has been invoked, so rational discussion ceases and we simply have to go out and kick some ass.

Bush cannot claim credit for this rhetorical maneuver, however: it’s far older than his administration. FDR, famously, spoke of the “Four Freedoms” that the United States sought to establish throughout the world; Norman Rockwell then painted four paintings to illustrate these four freedoms, and to encourage Americans to buy war bonds in order to fund military operations intended to secure those freedoms for Americans and even extend those freedoms to others. (Note that Roosevelt’s list included things like “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” which do not seem to make Bush’s list — not surprising, given that the power of ‘freedom’ is as a commonplace, and not as a fully-fleshed-out doctrine or ideology.) And this in turn drew on older articulations of ‘freedom’ as in some sense representing the essential substance of America, such as the variant of ‘freedom’ deployed against the institution of slavery by the abolitionist movement, and the variant of ‘freedom’ (often conjoined with ‘liberty’) deployed by the colonial revolutionaries against the British parliament. Despite the contextual differences, the basic gesture is the same every time: invoke ‘freedom’, raise the stakes of the argument, quell dissent and disagreement because no one wants to even be portrayed as an enemy of ‘freedom’.

I bring this up not because I am opposed to the idea of freedom; other things being equal, I rather prefer more freedom to less freedom, in fact. I’m also not bringing this up simply to illustrate the deeply, deeply ironic character of a justification for action based on ‘freedom’ which, in point of fact, involves a massive restriction of freedom for a) the military pilots and crews involved; b) the public that supports those military pilots and crews both financially and by tolerating a restriction on the public’s right to know operational details that might compromise “national security”; and finally c) the people on the ground whose very lives, not to mention any ‘freedom’ they might have had, are annihilated by basically any successful B-1 mission. (But yes, this is deeply, deeply ironic.) I am bringing this up to illustrate something much narrower: ‘freedom’ is basically a religious symbol in the United States, serving to sanctify courses of action as surely as if they had been blessed by someone speaking ex cathedra. As such, we ought to be very, very cautious whenever we hear it, because it so often signifies the end of anything like rational discussion.

“The sound of freedom” — to me that’s an ominous phrase, especially when repeated by an announcer at a formally “civilian” event, and ranks in my book right up there with the (absurd, if you ask me) notion of a “just war” or a “sanctioned murder.” Killing people — and in all of these cases we are talking about killing people, let’s be perfectly clear about that — is not, in my opinion, something that we ought to be sanctifying or blessing or pretending that we can justify in such a way that the action is right. Instead, we’re dealing with tragic necessities: things that sometimes have to be done, but not things that we should be proud of doing. Ignoring this, and imagining that we can actually sanctify such acts, leads us deeper into Max Weber’s Dilemma: here’s my absolute moral code, and here are all of the manifest violations of that code that I can justify in order to preserve the code itself, or at least the temporal power of those seeking to establish and defend the code. Thus we get killing in the name of peace, fighting wars in the name of ending war, committing evil in order to eliminate evil, and all of the other pathologies of the ethic of absolute ends.

This is something that we Americans particularly need to keep in mind on Memorial Day. As we go out to honor those soldiers who have died, let’s not fall prey to the all-too-easy temptation to simply nod our heads when someone says that those soldiers “died for our freedoms” (or offers the platitude that “freedom isn’t free” as a way of making sense of their sacrifices, whether or not they actually died while on active duty). It’s a lot more complicated than that. It may be tricky to honor soldiers while mourning the condition of a world that needs soldiers, but perhaps only doing something paradoxical like that can prevent us from stepping off the deep end into a realm of perpetual war without end — war in the name of ‘freedom’.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.