July 18, 2006

Just and Unjust Wars

Today I attended a lecture about women pilots in Germany during World War II. On the projection screen at the front of the room, the lecturer showed us photo after photo of these women. Some wore tight leather fighter caps and goggles on their foreheads. Others posed with their dark hair blowing in the wind, a wide grin painted on their unlined faces. And others stood next to heavy silver planes---"Hitler's Flying Floozies," as the lecturer joked.

As I listened to the talk, I thought about the National Air and Space Museum, the place where the lecture was held and also the place where I work. Half of my museum is dedicated to aviation (thus Air and Space) and a significant portion of this half focuses on war planes. Combat aircraft can be found all over NASM---suspended from the ceiling or resting snugly on the museum floor. These planes are pretty artifacts, often painted red or green or polished to a shiny silver. Hundreds of visitors pose in front of them every day. "Look at this, son," they say before snapping a picture, "this plane was used in World War I. Your great-grandpa fought in that war."

So much romanticism enshrouds war-time aviation. Daredevil pilots with handsome smiles, tough little planes with colorful emblems, acrobatic manuevers through the cobalt sky. Oftentimes the romanticism is so thick that we forget the noisy engines and the faulty mechanics, the hazardous conditions and the casualty rate. Or we overlook the countless widows and widowers who have lost a spouse or the numberless children who have lost a parent.

War is ugly, but it doesn't seem that way when you walk through a big friendly museum like Air and Space. It doesn't help that the museum primarily focuses on the technological aspects of aviation, rather than the social consequences of these devices. You'll never find a tally besides each plane that tabulates how many people were killed by the very artifact you're taking a picture of. That wouldn't make for a good photograph.

I'm not saying that airplanes are bad or even that war is bad. Planes have good uses as well as bad uses and the same thing goes for war. A war can be just or unjust and it can also be fought justly or unjustly. War is too complicated to be pigeonholed as either right or wrong.

But right or wrong, just or unjust, I find war to be terribly depressing. No matter how noble the cause, war causes families to be torn apart, homes to be destroyed, cities to be ripped asunder, and nations to be crushed. The War in Iraq has brought chaos to the Iraqi people; the recent Israeli attacks in Lebanon have killed over one-hundred people in a few days. And in Sudan, thousands of people are being murdered. Women are raped; men are killed; children are left orphans.

It makes me sad that war has become a normal part of life. It makes me sad that war has regularly stained human history. And it makes me sad that the dream of world peace is indeed only a dream.

At the Air and Space Museum, located a few hundred feet from the war planes, there sits a replica of the Apollo-Soyuz mission. Back in the seventies, an Apollo spacecraft docked with a Russian Soyuz vessel in space. Once the docking procedure was complete, the astronauts floated into each other's ships and shook hands. Some historians say that the Apollo-Soyuz mission was a tremendous step forward in establishing good relations with the USSR. I would agree. Apollo-Soyuz represented two enemies coming together and enjoying one another's company. No threats, no weapons, no war---just a firm handshake and a smile.

I can only wish that we had more artifacts like this in my museum.


  1. I share your sadness. When I think of airplanes and war, I feel that this use of this technology represents the distance between cause and effect, and decreased sense of responsibility. My first thought was of the Enola Gay and its crew, and their distance from the victims of the bombing of Hiroshima (mostly women, children, and the elderly).

    I was a hawk until I visited the museum in Nagasaki memorializing the victims of the atomic bomb there. I was 17. I didn't change my views over night, but that visit marked a turning point. None of the glory of war was evident in the displays and stories there. We need more museums like that.

  2. My friend Kristen went to the museum in Nagasaki and said that it was the most powerful museum she has ever visited. I'd like to go there one day to see the Japanese viewpoint on the atomic bombings.

    The Enola Gay is currently exhibited at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum. The Hazy Center is basically a big hangar where the museum can exhibit its vast collection of planes. There isn't much information on the Enola Gay itself---just a text label with a brief description of it. I wish there was more...but in 1995 there was a huge fiasco at the museum when we tried to exhibit the Enola Gay to assess the social impact, as well as the necessity, the atomic bombs. There was an enormous uproar in the media and the exhibit was subsequently scrapped.

    The U.S. and Japan have good relations nowadays, but even fifty years after WWII concluded, there are still a lot of unresolved feelings towards the atomic bombs. Hopefully one day, we'll be able to fully assess the Enola Gay and its mission at a national museum.

  3. C-line,

    I love that photo with the astronauts. And well said about romanticism clouding over the truth of war. I was talking to Alan about the present state of our world and it just makes me sick. So much war and violence in the world. Currently, the world is just a scary place and it's becoming a bit overwhelming.

  4. Hey! Update already! Where the heck are you?

  5. Sorry, Trav! I was in Utah for a few days and I didn't have much time to blog or even check my email.

    I'm working on a blog entry right now, but it's just not turning out the way I want it too... Writing sucks sometimes.

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