A memo to Mubarak, from Kendrick Smithyman
Update: well, so much for the historical relevance of this post. The bugger went and resigned on me as soon as I went to bed!
Like most other sentient beings in this part of the world, I suspect, I have been sitting up watching the news from Egypt and pondering both the creativity of that country's protest movement and the monumental pomposity of Hosni Mubarak.
After suffering some excerpts from the latest self-pitying and yet sinister speech from the Mummy-in-chief, I'm inclined to ask: why are the worst military leaders so often drawn from air forces?
Besides Mubarak, who never stops reminding his truculent subjects of his role as an air commander in the calamitous Six Days War of 1967, one has to consider Luis Prince Suazo, who continued a venerable Honduran tradition by removing his democratically-elected President in a coup a couple of years back, and Jerry Rawlings, who used the tiny air force of Ghana as a springboard to political power in 1981 and then ruled the country for more than a decade, forcing through one of the most caustically neo-liberal IMF 'reform' programmes seen anywhere in the world.
When I think about relatively progressive military leaders or would-be leaders, like the young Hugo Chavez, who organised an unsuccessful armed uprising after watching the Venezuelan government slaughter two thousand demonstrators in a week during the 'Caracazo' of 1989, and Thomas Sankara, who gave Upper Volta a new name and a new direction in the '80s before being assassinated, I find that they tend to come from the army.
Even navies seem to provide somewhat better military leaders than the glory boys in the sky. Frank Bainimarama, who is no friend of democracy but has at least challenged the power of corrupt Fijian chiefs-turned-capitalists and protected his country's Indo-Fijian minority from persecution, hails from the navy.
I wonder if the large sums of money needed to train military pilots and the elaborate human and technical infrastructure needed to support them foster a certain elitism, and a consequent hostility to the populist politics that captured the likes of Chavez and Sankara. Perhaps, remembering the story of Icarus, we might also speculate that the experience of taking flight at rare speed into the circumambient matter breeds a certain God-like detachment, and a certain hubris. In his autobiographical novel The Kindness of Women JG Ballard recalls how, as a young man training as an Royal Air Force pilot above the frozen lakes of northern Canada for days on end, he began to forget about trivial subjects like friends and family and world peace, and to dwell instead on the delights of staging a solo nuclear bombing raid on the Soviet Union - of 'flying low over Belarus with two pieces of the sun under my wings', as he put it.
Reports from Tahrir Square speak of splits in the army, as sergeants and other middle-ranking soldiers side with demonstrators and denounce Mubarak, but US-built jets have happily buzzed protesters, and analysts describe the air force as Mubarak's most reliable support bases.
Kendrick Smithyman served in the Royal New Zealand Air Force for most of the Second World War, but he spent his time in a storeroom rather than a cockpit. Perhaps because of his humble station in the Air Force, Smithyman developed a profound hatred of the pomposity of his commanders and their American allies. In 'The First Liberator', a poem published last November in Private Bestiary, my collection of his previously-unseen texts, Smithyman offers a possibly-apocryphal story of military pomposity and its comeuppance. I thought I'd post the poem and as a heavily coded riposte to Mubarak, and as an utterly ineffectual gesture of solidarity with the Egyptian revolution.
The First Liberator
Word came down from Bullshit Castle:
Americans are sending a Liberator.
paraded, with band. Staff cars arrived.
It swung in heavily, touched down, taxied,
tuned, feathered motors, and stopped.
The door opened, Big Brass appeared.
You know how American big brass appears.
On that last leg swinging in
some crewman purged the tank holding shit.
Their big bird was plastered with shit.
No doubt about it: shit is shit
and the U.S. Air Force
General and his Aides were (My country,
'tis of thee sweet land of) framed
Of thee I sing.