Thursday, August 4, 2011

A bit about a plane, and a lot else.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the Smithsonian Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center Air & Space Annex in Northern Virginia. While there I had an interesting conversation with a small group visitors who I ran into near the World War II exhibit. This isn't necessarily a rant, but I did want to point out some facts from the conversation, and editorialize on those facts.

First of all, the group I ran into was composed to five people, two girls in their early twenties, Two men in their thirties, and a man in his mid forties.

1) No one recognized the Enola Gay on sight.

Comment: This isn't as bad as some might make it sound. The plane is huge, and from the single vantage point we were standing, there were no identifying placards around. A one minute walk would have put us at the nose of the plane, and a huge display about it, its crew and its famous mission. However, the B-29 is a very distinctive shape, and the images of the plane dropping the bomb over Hiroshima are very common, so I was a little disappointed as the obliviousness.

2) When pointed out, none of them recognized the name "Enola Gay"

Comment: Sight recognition aside, this plane is one of the most iconic in world history, and one of the most written about in school textbooks. I was bothered, to say the least.

3) When I commented that this was not a replica, or a reproduction, but was in fact the very same plane that single-handedly took the world into the atomic/nuclear age, there was a reverent look of shock from all five people. One of the girls was even heard to say "Oh my God" under her breath.

Comment: This was good, in my opinion. I know too many people who have little to no respect for the surviving artifacts of history. To have the complete, undamaged aircraft on display for the public to see is a milestone for history, posterity and the public good. I was actually touched that these people understood this.

4) There were slack-jawed, heart-stopped-for-a-moment, "I can't believe that", expressions when I commented that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren't even in the top ten for destructive bombing raids during world war two.

Comment: This bothered me, but I wasn't really disappointed in any of the five people in question. Politically, socially and militarily, there is little doubt that the missions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were amongst the most important in the allied war effort. However, these grand facts have conspired together to overshadow the massive, dedicated military offensives that went into the bombing of other major cities in Japan and Europe. Historians can debate motives and results from now until dooms day, but the fact that none of these five had heard of the fire bombings of Dresden or Tokyo, or their causes, effects or the lessons learned (then and now) truly saddens me.

5) After I explained about several other bombing campaigns, one of the girls looked at me and asked "Why is it that they don't teach us this stuff in school? You would think this would be considered important?"

Comment: This was a major uplifting moment for me because that one girl cut through all the politics of the moment, and of history with a very direct question. And that type of question can, and should lead to other questions, and those can, and should lead to true, useful education. What these people may, or may not have had in terms of historical knowledge, this one girl made up for in insight.
And for the record, my answer was "Frankly, because we don't know to ask when we are kids. Its really up to us to teach ourselves that type of thing these days, but the good thing is that we have the tools to do just that unlike ever before."

And Finally,

6) one of the men cut me off at that point and rather brusquely cut me off. "I appreciate the comments, I really do, but we are on a schedule here."

Comment: I talk to much, but you probably already knew that.

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