In the wake of a crash at a British Air Show, Glen Poole wonders about our human propensity to go to war, and the ways in which men have been creating evermore inventive ways both to kill people and save people’s lives.
I’ve been trying to make sense of a tragic plane crash that killed at least 11 people at the Shoreham Air Show in England this weekend. It’s the second time I’ve had cause to contemplate this question.
Eight years ago, I was sitting on the Sussex Downs with family and friends, watching the same air show, when a pilot taking part in a Battle of Britain re-enactment, nose-dived to his death in the field next to us.
I was recalling this incident with my partner this weekend, as we parked up by a makeshift airfield where the male enthusiasts at the Sussex Radio Flying Club regularly meet up to create their own miniature air shows throughout the year.
As we walked from the car park, over the Downs to the Shoreham Air Show, we spotted the pilot Andy Hill looping his Hawker Hunter up into the blue skies ahead of us. And then he was gone. And the sky was filled with deathly, black clouds of smoke. And for longer than was rational, we deluded ourselves that it was all part of the show, because this type of lightning isn’t meant to strike twice.
Fortunately we didn’t see the crash that killed at least 11 people—-but we watched it afterwards of course, from all conceivable angles, as we spent the weekend absorbing every second of new video footage, every photograph, every eye witness report, trying to make sense of the two brutal tragedies we’ve encountered on the gentle Sussex Downs.
We’ve contemplated the myriad of mundane decisions that resulted in certain people being in the exact spot where tragedy struck, while others escaped by a matter of seconds or inches. There is nothing like the apparently random futility of cruel, untimely death to remind us how precious life is. “There but for the grace of God,” we murmured as we questioned the sanity of our belief that there is some kind of benevolent order to this mysterious universe we inhabit.
Up on the downs as the smoke billowed and the emergency service sirens wailed and dozens of picnicking families looked down on the scene in stunned silence, it was like 2007 all over again, only worse.
How can we possibly find order and reason in the chaos of such disaster?
There is one pattern that has emerged and maybe it’s just coincidence. So far, a total of six people who have died or are feared dead, have been named. All of them are male, mostly young men in their early twenties.
As their stories emerge in the media, the dead occur like war heroes whose lives have been lost on foreign soil, but this happened on our doorstep, to random individuals, on a road we regularly take.
My key realisation, eight years ago, when BrianBrown’s Hawker Hurricane burst into flames in the field next to me, was that male death and destruction lurks in the shadows of all air shows.
In the minutes before the 2007 crash, I added my own commentary to the Battle of Britain for the benefit of some of the young boys present. I have no knowledge of military aircraft and so I offered them a pantomime tale of “goodies and baddies”. Shortly after the fatal crash, as the boys looked to the men to reshape what had happened into a script they could understand, a friend’s young son said: “was it a baddie that died daddy”?
Of course there were no “baddies”, just highly skilled and experienced men who love to fly for their own joy and the entertainment of others—an entertainment built on the celebration of military achievement.
As one commentator said on BBC Radio Five, air shows serve a social purpose because they “fire people up” about technology and engineering. What he didn’t say, is they also “fire people up” about war. They are part of the subtle militarisation of our culture that supports the celebration and acceptance of our country’s military prowess.
As a pragmatic and cowardly pacifist, I have the deepest respect for our armed forces. I want to live in a world free from war, but in a world that’s full of warmongers, I know I am privileged to live in a country that’s generally better at war than the “bad guys”. And still, we should be in no doubt, that most of the machines on display at air shows were built to kill.
In amongst all the footage I’ve watched in the past few days, I was struck by the precise, professional tones of the Air Show’s master of ceremonies. His voice is a blend of that alexithymic tone so often found in male enthusiasts of all stripes and the “keep calm and carry on” stoicism we imagine characterised British chaps, of a certain class, in the days when we still had an empire.
Moments before Andy Hill’s Hawker Hunter flew out of control, the commentator’s voice seemed to crack with uncharacteristic emotion as he looked up to the heavens and praised the machine with the words “that is such a beautiful aeroplane”. And then beauty turned into the horror of indiscriminate death as the same plane smashed through cars on the A27, bursting into a fireball of aviation fuel.
Throughout history, men have been masters of the external world, creating evermore inventive ways both to kill people and save people’s lives. Yet no amount of technological advancement alone, can overcome our human propensity to go to war. We also need to develop and evolve of our internal worlds.
In the aftermath of the tragedy in Shoreham, our focus has turned to safety and the Civil Aviation Authority has responded by placing severe restrictions on aerial displays. This is an understandable response that will make the military theatre of air shows much safer, but it only addresses the external world and doesn’t make war (and our internal need to celebrate it) less likely.
The Shoreham Airport disaster will only dominate the headlines for a limited period of time. That window of opportunity offers us a brief glimpse into the shadows or air shows where man’s inhumanity to man always hides.
Yes we should mourn and reflect and learn lessons from the tragedy. Yes we should continue to provide ways to celebrate, honour and support our armed forces.
And maybe we should also use this opportunity to reflect on the ways we have manipulated the external world to start wars, end wars and prevent wars; and ask ourselves how can we also reshape our internal worlds, such that our need for war can finally be confined to history.
Since Saturday, my thoughts have been with everyone affected by the disaster at Shoreham Air Show, and I’ve also found myself contemplating this question: how many pacifists will it take to change the world?
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