Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Angels of Death

I was once a young buck in the business world. I had been a consultant with a “Big 6” accounting firm who was hired away by one of my clients. I was good, skilled, and in demand. My client, now my employer was growing like crazy and was clearly understaffed. In addition to my own responsibilities, I had to help to hire another 150 people to flesh out the organization. Times were busy. I had two young children to raise and a nascent business to plan for. We had just moved the business from one part of the state to a much more affordable locale that would allow the business to grow. The office had a comparatively slow and bucolic feel to it from what I had been used to.


My new office enjoyed a view of the American River. The office park was located in an area had not been built up yet, so the surroundings were sparse and natural. We were located about a stone’s throw from the water. Every morning I could see as well as hear the geese flying up river and honking on their way, drawing dark Vs against the bright blue skies.


Occasionally, I would take my work outside. These flights were so numerous that outdoor conversations were always interrupted and punctuated with various honks and squeaks. It was an almost a continuous display of precision flights of flying V’s. Every so often the goose at point would fall off lead and his place would be taken up immediately by his successor. The V would reform effortlessly and move on. Every afternoon they would reverse course and I could watch them again. I was often caught up in their aerial ballet. It was easy to take a twenty second respite from my desk duties to calmly soar with the geese for a moment. I never tired of watching them.


They became my almost private diversion. Work was a halcyon of activity and my mind required the restful peace that the geese randomly afforded. There was comfort in seeing their migration to and from points unknown along the river. But, they were not the only birds in the sky.


In 1947, the Air Force became a separate branch of the armed services. That reorganization of our military forces solidified the role of the Strategic Air Command, or SAC as it was called, in the development of both an aggressive and deterrent ability to forward the interests of the United States while giving primarily the Soviet Union pause at plying more aggression toward Europe. SAC’s mission statement was in part to “…be prepared to conduct long-range offensive operations in any part of the world, either independently or in co-operation with land and naval forces; to conduct maximum-range reconnaissance over land or sea, either independently or in co-operation with land and naval forces; ….”


It was under General Curtis LeMay’s command that this mission was interpreted to be the cornerstone of our strategic policy of nuclear deterrence during the cold war with the Soviets. The SAC Force grew to include more than 1,500 bombers at its peak. As the Soviets became more capable of delivering nuclear weapons on their own, SAC strategy evolved accordingly. In the mid 1960’s, at the peak of the cold war, almost of one third of these bombers were aloft at any given hour to provide a swift and deadly response to any overt attack. Almost all of them contained nuclear bombs. The most impressive of these planes was the B52 bomber.


These B52’s were first delivered to SAC in 1954 and quickly became the backbone of the SAC air strategy. Impressive by any measure, these planes had a tail fin that topped out over 48 feet above ground and some four thousand square feet of wing surface area. Each wing supported 4 engines and the plane could carry impressive payloads of large numbers of conventional weapons or a single 43,000 pound nuclear one. Its wingtips sagged when the B52 sat on the runway. In addition to their deterrence initiative, they were used for surveillance until the Vietnam War in the mid 1960’s in which they were used in earnest to perform “carpet” bombing. Again, in the Gulf War of 1991 they delivered 40 percent of all munitions dropped in Iraq. They are huge, unmistakable, and deadly. They were nick named Angels of Death for quite legitimate reasons.


For those of you readers too young to have lived through it, the Cold War whip-sawed between heightened fear and relative calm. International crises, such as the Berlin Blockade (1948–1949), the Korean War (1950–1953), the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War (1959–1975), the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979–1989), and NATO exercises in November 1983 arose from time to time encouraging a mild hysteria in the press. Both the United States and the Soviets sought d├ętente as the only rational course of action. Direct military attacks on adversaries were deterred by the potential for mutually assured destruction using nuclear weapons that both sides possessed and both sides could deliver…if someone was just crazy enough to pull the trigger.



Just a few miles down the road from my office was Mather Air Force Base. Mather was home to SAC’s 4134th Strategic Wing. Half of their 72 B52s were in the air at any one time, keeping the concept of nuclear deterrence alive. My office was in Mather’s flight path. It was hard to tell if I should have felt safer when these planes passed low overhead, but they were impressive in their size and more importantly for what they represented.


I was born during the Korean War. I saw Kennedy on the news in Berlin, but I didn’t understand what was happening or why. I remember the first headline from the local newspaper that I ever read on my own was in big two inch type, “Cuban Missile Crisis.” I was taught not only to stop, drop and roll if I was ever to catch fire, but also to "duck and cover” and crawl under my desk should our teacher tell us that an atom bomb was going to be dropped. We were drilled on these techniques as commonly as we had homework. Backyard bomb shelters were thought to be a good idea. I was in high school and college during the Viet Nam War. The world was altogether a frightening place when we stepped beyond the boundaries and safety provided by our parents and the sense of home that they engendered.


By the time I got to be that young buck that started this story, there had been several years of relative calm for the United States. We had been beset with some economic turmoil in rising interest rates, falling housing prices, and were marginally involved in various trouble spots around the world, but on the whole, there was security. I felt safe. I was sure that the world was mature enough to take care of these problems without interrupting my life, or endangering the lives of my family, and I was sadly disabused of that notion everyday as the geese flew overhead under the shadow of our own Angels of Death.


Life moves on. I began to raise the two children I had then and a third that came soon after. They have grown into fine young men, raised in a world far different from the one in which I grew up. Their lives were filled with soccer, and basketball, and baseball and all the things that young kids do. The prosperity of the late 1980s through the ‘90s made life full and unburdened by presence of war. There was a brief skirmish with the first Gulf War in 1991, but after month it was out of the news.


The United States, under President Ronald Reagan, increased diplomatic, military, and economic pressure on the Soviet Union, which was already suffering from severe economic stagnation. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, leaving the United States as the dominant military power. The Cold War drew to a close in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. There was simply no one left to play the game. SAC moved on to different objectives, Mather was closed, and the over flights stopped.


In benign and honest efforts to improve the historical curriculum in our schools, certain aspects of history just disappear. My children were not taught that there was such a thing as the cold war. If the subject was broached, it had no context, nor meaning for them. There were no reminders. I am sure that they feel that the world is now mature enough to take care of these problems without interrupting their lives, or endangering the lives they might find themselves responsible for, and they will not be disabused of these notions everyday as the geese fly overhead. The Angels of Death have not lost their sting, only their wings. I regret that the generation my children belong to isn’t any more right about this than I was.



© 2009 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved