Bossier City, Louisiana: "Warfare"

Barksdale Air Force Base

Bossier City, Louisiana

October 29, 2008

One of my favorite television programs is "The West Wing."  In one episode the President has been shot and the senior military advisors are worried that a foreign enemy might try to take advantage of the moment.  When the military men ask the White House Chief of Staff what message the United States government should send out, the actor, the late John Spenser thinks for a second and says, "Don't mess with us tonight."

"Don't mess with us" was just what I was thinking when I visited the museum at Barksdale Air Force Base.  East of Bossier City, Barksdale is the home of the Eighth Air Force.  The slogan of the museum is "Come see the Might in the Mighty Eighth."

"Mighty" indeed.  Dozens of airplanes sit on several acres of land beyond the visitor center.  Old ones and modern models, the display of weaponry is fearsome.  The motors are silent now.  I hear no vibration or roar.

I never served nor do I have any affiliation, association or experience with the armed forces.  My friends who served tell their "war stories" to their comrades.  So like the rest of us civilians, can I have any sense at all of what it is like to be a marine, a soldier, an airman, or a sailor, and to man a weapon and unleash its firepower?

"The Terrible Hours" by Peter Maas ("Serpico" and "The Valachi Papers") tells the story of the naval officer credited with the greatest submarine rescue in history.  That officer was Charles "Swede" Momsen, a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy.  In the 1920's after he witnessed the horror of all hands lost with their irretrievably sunken submarines, Swede Momsen set a personal course to develop rescue technology.  Despite the hidebound naval hierarchy and the stifling bureaucracy, Momsen developed a diving bell capable of bringing sailors from a disabled sub back to the ocean's surface.  Then, in 1939, when disaster struck the submarine Squalus off the coast of New England and America's newest submarine sank in 250 feet of water, Momsen and his team of divers miraculously saved the lives of thirty-three crew.

Peter Mass describes Commander Momsen as an indefatigable scientist and an irrepressible visionary.  To me he is also one of the many millions of our "don't mess with us" military men and women.  I think about them as I photograph the parade of retired airplanes at Barksdale. The designers and engineers, the maintenance personnel and the controllers, the pilots, navigators, gunners and bombardiers,the devoted professionals who serve and defend.

For me, for the first time, awe is what I am feeling.  And respect.  And pride.

Two years ago I met "Lucky" in North Thailand.  He is a retired American soldier with a huge bullet-hole gash in his thigh.  He was shot in Bosnia, and is "lucky" to be alive.  We had a beer together and a couple of laughs.  I hope I meet Lucky again.  I'd like to tell him about my new feelings.


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