Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Your New Skyline, Brought to you By Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and United Arab Emirates

Look across the Potomac River from any vantage point of reasonable height in DC, and you'll see this gargantuan sculpture carving up the sky over Arlington:

The Air Force Memorial was designed by architect Jim Freed, who also did the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Freed died in 2005, but his design wasn't erected until 2007.

Here's why it sucks:

§ Civilian Casualties. "Smart" bombs notwithstanding, the USAF is the source of the majority of non-combatant deaths in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and both Iraq Wars. In a war where winning "hearts and minds" is paramount, it's worth asking whether the collateral damage from air strikes has in fact been collateral. Does the Air Force, with its awesome arsenal of Bunker Busters and Daisy Cutters, make more enemies than it kills?

§ Religious Zeal: for non-evangelical Christians, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs has become a decidedly unfriendly place. This is disquieting for those of us who like to believe that the US Military represents a multicultural cross-section of American society. It's troubling to see religious intolerance flourish in the one institution that is responsible for blowing things up.

§ Corruption: no one has done more to bilk the American people out of billions in tax revenue than the Air Force. They command the lion's share of the defense budget, and are notorious for ill-conceived pork projects to megacontractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon.

I'm also not sure how appropriate this monument is in 2007. Whereas in Vietnam, more than 2,500 Air Force Personnel died in combat, in Iraq, the Air Force has lost a total of 30 members in the four years of fighting. Tragic, to be sure, but only a slightly bad week for the Army (and a pretty quiet day for Iraqi Civilians).

Equally troubling is the Memorial's financing. The donor list, reproduced below, seems to suggest not a monument at all, but a craven bit of marketing by weapons dealers, a grotesque post-modern billboard for the military-industrial complex.

Chairman's Group - $5,500,000 & Up
Lockheed Martin Corporation

President's Group - $5,000,000 & Up
The Boeing Company

Patriot’s Group - $2,000,000 & Up
Northrop Grumman Corporation
United Arab Emirates Air Force

Commander's Circle - $1,000,000 & Up
United Technologies
General & Mrs. Ira C. Eaker Estate
EADS North America
Sarah & Ross Perot, Jr.
Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects

Air Force Leaders - $500,000 & Up

Air Force Association National Headquarters
General Electric Corporation
RJ Reynolds Foundation

Perhaps a more low-key monument would be fine, but Freed's piece is startling to look at, evoking not the bloody air wars over the Pacific or Europe, but the indifferent, geometric contrails of high-tech violence. The design lacks any sense of gravity or seriousness-- none of the sober emotions one feels at Arlington Cemetery. It doesn't even feel like a war memorial. As a piece of art, it works on a much more basic level: "See this?" It says, "This means we can do whatever we want."

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