Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Oceana Four (2008): Thoughts on the Symbolic Action as Mode of (Poetic) Address

The first picture above is one of my favorites from any symbolic action--the juxtaposition between the protestors on the airplane with the line of military below demonstrates both the vital and courageous actions of the Oceana 4, as well as the potential limits of such an act, insofar as it effects an abyssal rupture between the servicemen watching below and themselves. The servicemen, with their backs to us, seem a faceless mass against the particular faces of the war resisters; such an act may risk going "over their heads" (literally and figuratively), rather than being addressed to them particularly.

Four people got atop the B-52 on display at the Oceana air show this weekend. They were detained as were 8 observers. 11 people received letters banning them from all Naval installations from Virginia to Maine. Steve Baggarly of the Norfolk Catholic Worker violated a previously received letter and will go to US District Court in Norfolk on November 3rd on a trespass charge which carries up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.

Kim Williams
Norfolk CW House
1321 W 38th St
Norfolk VA 23508

Air Shows and Resistance

by Steve Baggarly

Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Virginia, hosted its fiftieth annual air show this weekend. Oceana is home to F-18 Hornets and Super Hornets which are deployed on aircraft carriers stationed at Norfolk Naval Base. This year's show, dubbed "A Legacy of Excellence," is one of over 200 air shows taking place across the country this year from March to November.

Air shows are the US Military's hottest community relations and recruiting tool. Many take place on military bases that are opened to the public for the occasion, others at local airports or fair grounds.

At Oceana, attendees were dazzled by active duty fighters, bombers, transports, and spy planes, as well as historical and stunt aircraft, displayed both on the ground and in speed-filled, eardrum-shattering air demonstrations. Booths sponsored by defense contractors lauding the next generations of military aircraft under development offered pencils, stickers, and glossy photos of sleek futuristic war planes.

With local radio stations playing rock and country music, lines of concession stands, and picnicking areas, the show was an intentionally family affair as the endless stream of strollers attested. Also on hand were small Naval river craft crowded with kids behind the machine guns, a rack of M-4 and M-16 rifles and Army issue shotguns for visitors to handle, an opportunity for small children to lay in the grass with a sniper's rifle and peer through its sights, and a virtual Army experience in which groups of people embark on their own company-sized Army mission. But the Navy's Blue Angels precision flying team and the other military aircraft were the stars of the show.

Unmentioned anywhere was the sole purpose for the existence of all the assembled high-tech weaponry on display. Nowhere was their killing vocation acknowledged. Nowhere was the reality of the people under the bombs even whispered; the deafening explosions, the quaking earth, the fear, the chaos, the smoke and fire, the loss of homes, jobs, utilities, and resources, the burning of flesh, the spurting of blood,
the pain and shock, the blinding, maiming, and crippling, the loss of limbs, the deep psychological trauma, the soul-rending howls of new orphans and widows. Nowhere was mentioned the inherently indiscriminate nature of airstrikes; that every time a bomb bay door opens or a wing launcher is fired that civilians, innocents, and children are as likely as anything to be blown to shreds. Nowhere were the photos of decapitated or blood-drenched Iraqi and Afghan children.

Nowhere was posted the definition of war crimes.

Such realities would have upset what was essentially a religious event. Faith in the weapons was palpable. The aircraft were heralded as the source of freedom and security, peace and prosperity. These attributes of a deity were readily assigned to the warplanes, the airborne idols of our national religion, militarism. In the end it is our B-52's and F-18's and our stealth fighters and bombers that we believe will save us. We entrust our children to their protection, swell with pride when they join the ranks in their service, and freely give our money to create ever more lethal versions. This is the message of the air shows; life as we know it is made possible by these planes and we owe them our absolute and undying allegiance.

There are two air shows each year in Virginia's Hampton Roads area, and several hundred thousand people attend the three-day events. This weekend at Oceana four people disturbed the good order of the show by climbing atop the B-52 bomber on display with banners reading "We Shalt Not Kill" and "Weapons of Mass Destruction are Nothing to Celebrate." Each one of the Air Force's 66 nuclear capable B-52's can
carry the equivalent of 320 Hiroshima bombs. They can also carry 70,000 pounds of conventional weapons (including cluster bombs, cruise missiles and gravity bombs) and in their 45 year history have carpet bombed Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The four banner bearers were detained along with eight observers. Eleven people were given letters banning them from Naval installations from Virginia to Maine. One member of the Norfolk Catholic Worker violated a previous banning order and will face a trespassing charge in Federal Court in Norfolk on November 3rd that carries up to 6 months in jail and a $500 fine.

Air shows are public liturgies venerating our gods of metal. They glorify our wars and they indoctrinate our children. Go to and find the air show nearest you. Then grab some friends, some signs, literature, puppets or a bullhorn, and, as Dan Berrigan said, "Don't just do something, stand there!"

Also go to for more info:


Joseph Ross said...

Phil - Thank you for posting these powerful photographs. Indeed, the one with the protesters and the soldiers below is stunning. The Ploughshares movement is such an intriguing movement because the act itself is so simple and pure: name the weapon for what it is, with blood, hammer, ash, then wait for the powers to respond. It is quite powerful. Is it almost like poetry enacted? Just a thought. J. Ross

Philip Metres said...

Joseph, that's precisely the argument that I make in Behind the Lines (the book version), in my discussion of the Catonsville Nine action (see the chapter on Vietnam).


Philip Metres

Joseph Ross said...

I will do that. Thank you. J. Ross