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James Carroll

Thunderbirds of prey

The military steps up its PR to stave off sequestration

istockphoto/photo illustration/globe staff

This is Armed Forces Week, a time when the nation honors the military, and when many bases welcome the general public with open houses and receptions. The observances culminate on Saturday, Armed Forces Day. In the past, the celebrations featured the precision flying teams — the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds — but they are grounded this year due to sequestration cuts.

The thrill of attending an air show lies only partly in the wonder of the astonishing precision with which the nation’s best pilots fly their planes. Their high-speed passes, rolls, tight turns, and loops reliably generate oohs and aahs. When the screaming fighter jets draw into formations that have their wingtips almost touching, spectators close their eyes. That’s when the other part of the thrill kicks in — the palpable possibility that the pilots won’t pull the trick off this time. No one goes to an air show hoping for a crash, but the possibility of a crash is key to the excitement.

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In 1982, the Thunderbirds suffered what became known as the mythic “diamond crash.” The synchronized routines depend on an absolute discipline, with maneuvers controlled by a leader pilot, from whom the other flyers take their cues. This was a preseason training session. The team was rehearsing the diamond loop, a four-plane formation with three closely slotted behind the leader. The pattern involved a screaming dive, a swoop close to the ground, and an acceleration up into a glorious ascent.

But as the dive commenced, the number one plane suffered a mechanical malfunction. The pilot — by some measures, the best pilot in the world — could not pull out of the dive. He nosed into the ground. The three following pilots, in perfect discipline, ignored whatever sense they had of something wrong. In the split seconds available, it’s not clear what they could have done. But, still taking cues from their leader, they followed him into the ground. Four of America’s best pilots were killed.

Today, that infamous tragedy reads like a cautionary tale. In what may be the most pointed observance of Armed Forces Week, Pentagon representatives are expected to go before the House Appropriations Committee to seek urgent relief from the sequester cuts. The Defense Department, joining another kind of diamond formation, echoes the Federal Aviation Administration and the Justice Department in declaring that its sacrosanct function justifies exemptions — “reprogramming” — from the automatic budget cuts that took effect in March. “The reality is that if sequestration continues as it is,” the Army vice chief of staff testified last month, “we risk becoming a hollow force.”

The armed services’ plea is expected to be generously heard by politicians, many of whose home districts are rife with military bases and defense industries. There is no equivalent constituency, meanwhile, for other institutions and people left reeling by the crude cost-cutting of sequestration. Who makes the case for the budgets of Head Start, cancer research, food assistance, nutrition programs, and unemployment? There is no such thing as Health and Human Services Week.

For decades, our common civic life and vast sectors of the US economy have been in a slot, automatically taking all orders from the formation leader, the Department of Defense. Indeed, traditions like Armed Forces Day, and popular displays like air shows, were instituted precisely to assuage any unease Americans instinctively felt about the failure to demobilize after World War II.

Until that period, Americans broadly believed that a massive permanent military establishment violated something fundamental in the nation’s sense of itself. The Thunderbirds call themselves “America’s Ambassadors in Blue,” but they represent the Pentagon more than the country, and the impression they aim to make is on domestic opinion, not foreign.

Periodically, there have been opportunities for a shift in priorities — a shift in which the Pentagon might lose its primacy. But fears of a hollowed-out military always trumped fears of hollowed-out schools, inner cities, civic infrastructure, and moral value. No surprise, therefore, that the war that did not end in 1945, or even in 1989, is refusing to end again. Will the nation blindly follow this malfunctioning machine into the ground?

The sequestration cuts have presented an accidental opportunity to adjust the political and economic order. This Armed Forces Week, Congress should not take its lead from the Pentagon brass. Let human services, for once, count for as much as armed services.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.
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