Peace in the air, pieces in the sky

From the time I was this high (can you see me gesture, dear reader?), I have been fascinated by aviation. At the tender age of seven, I apparently ran indoors yelling at the top of my lungs that an “American jet” had been “chasing” a “Sri Lankan jet” – both alleged aircraft being (I now suspect) Mig-17s, loaned to the then fledgling national air force, which later ‘beat up the sky’ over Colombo to the delight of every plane-loving young man at the school by the sea.

That early encounter led to a lifelong passion for flying. Sadly enough, to be satisfied only by vicarious encounters via Biggles; Air and Space magazines; and Battle, War, and Commando comics. The closest I ever came to being in a cockpit was to be seated all too briefly in a demo piece – a Jet Provost – at the then Victoria Park. So you can imagine my chagrin and consternation, fellow aficionado of flying, when the Kfir accident last week wiped the happy smile off the face of aeronautics lovers.

Now one suspects that when it comes to matters military, it is far better to bear one’s opinions of the state of the nation in this regard than let it all hang out (as that inelegant colloquialism has it). For poor scribes and innocent commentators have been taken to task in no uncertain terms for the mere presumption of writing on the way the war was fought and won. And even in peace time the general maxim observed by journalists is that it is prudent to be safe than sorry. But perhaps there is a time and a place, to say nothing of a duty and a obligation, no, even a right and a responsibility, to venture one’s opinion in the public interest (not that what I’m going to say next is anything earth-shattering or close to being subversive).

On Saturday last, when Sri Lanka’s cricket team was facing a battle-hardened veteran of many brutal campaigns, its air force was tearing up the great big pea patch in the sky – paratroopers tumbled out of planes and plummeted to a plateau before sailing down in perfect formation; helicopter gunships swanned about like horses of war saying “Ha!” among the trumpets; and fighter-bombers behaved as if they didn’t believe in the law of gravity.

While jets streaked and thundered overhead (I abandoned the all-too-gripping match from time to time to catch a glimpse of the goings-on over Ratmalana aerodrome), my mind went back to the week’s prior happenings – when two Kfirs, the pride of a professional combat squadron, collided in midair and crashed to earth. One life lost, another undeniably hit hard. Was the pomp and glory fly-past worth risking the lives and limbs of men of war now at peace? There are those who think that the peacetime pursuits of military outfits can legitimately include air shows.

Others of a more cynical and skeptical bent are persuaded that the powers that be pounce on such opportunities to provide the masses with their statutory circuses, in the absence of bread. Also worth recalling, albeit academically since the era of conflict is now conclusively over (we are told), is that once upon a time in a deserted battlefield over no-man’s-land, deadly ordnance rained out of formerly friendly skies from crates such as these. A nation bombing itself into oblivion! Oh, did we mention pride and glory? Biggles would have been chuffed to bits…

Be that as it may, the purpose of this reflection is not to impugn the professionalism of the force in question, or malign its much-accomplished pilots (I choked up as I read the postmortem-like profile of that poor dead pilot last week). The point is to ask whether we are employing our military machine to meaningful use (and even this, we do tentatively; hesitantly; a tad bit fearfully). That the mandarins in the politico-military complex have the right idea in asking the army to step in to control market forces in common- or garden-ops such as regulating vegetable-related logistics (Operation Market-Garden, dears; do look it up!) and navigating the navy along patrol, escort, and coast guard duties is not in doubt. Issue is: are they – and we, as a nation – doing enough to beat our swords into plough-shares and our spears into pruning-hooks? Or, to marshal a military metaphor, can we convert our fighter-bombers into friendly domestic freighters to transport goods and services to the far-flung corners of our now sovereign realm? And work over our warships into water-world amusement parks?

Well, yes… as soon as the show is over! And let’s not get started on the high-speed convoys of VIPs and their families, which are good for nothing more than mowing down innocent civilians enjoying the fruits of peace. Least said, soonest the administration can forget it ever happened.

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