Trying to make sense of the two very different, and even opposed, public roles served by San Diego’s most unique historic site.
Floating in San Diego’s harbor, just a few hundred yards away from the city’s downtown, is a hugely singular and compelling public space: the U.S.S. Midway, a formerly operational aircraft carrier that has (since 2004) served as a naval and aviation museum. The museum offers visitors at least three distinct visions into the lives of naval sailors and aviators: on the flight deck, a number of actual planes and helicopters, many of which the visitors can sit in; in the hangar beneath (alongside a few more planes), flight simulators and other re-creations of piloting and wartime experiences; and below-decks, an elaborately preserved and re-created vision of everyday life aboard the carrier for its officers, aviators, and sailors. My boys were particularly struck by the laundry room, with loads of fake clothes tumbling in the giant washers and dryers, and detailed depictions of the sailors whose job it was to carry the hundred-pound bags of laundry around the ship.
That laundry room illustrates what is to my mind the most significant and inspiring public role of the Midway museum: to help 21st century visitors understand the experiences and identities of those men and women who served aboard the carrier and its many sister ships, at all times but most especially during times of war. As I wrote in my first Veteran’s Day post (in analysis of the post-World War II film The Best Years of Our Lives), when it comes to American Studiers and our connections to the American past, there are few acts of empathy more important than such understandings of what the experiences of war and military service have entailed; obviously such experiences are hugely varied, both in different periods/wars and for different individuals, but nonetheless a museum like the Midway offers a very striking and effective means to create those connections with past servicemen and women. I’ve visited a number of battlefields and other wartime historic sites, and would rank the Midway (and particularly its below-decks exhibits) among the most effective such connection-creators I’ve encountered.
There’s another side to that connection, though, and it’s one that is to my mind much less historical and more propagandistic. On the Midway I found it illustrated most succinctly by the placard in front of one of the flight deck planes; the placard was describing the plane’s role during the Vietnam War, and noted that it was frequently used for “close-in bombing” in the war’s later stages. Which is to say, although the placard was careful not to say this: these bombers almost certainly participated in President Nixon’s often secret, likely illegal, and thoroughly despicable carpet-bombing campaigns of Cambodia and Laos; even if they didn’t, they most likely dropped napalm and other weapons of mass deconstruction indiscriminately on North Vietnamese villages. Such bombings are quite possibly, as I wrote in my post on Dresden, an inevitable part of war; but that inevitability does not in any way elide their horrific brutality, and it most definitely did not make me view the plane being connected to such bombings with anything other than horror. But in the context of the Midway, with its stated motto of “Live the Adventure, Honor the Legend,” Vietnam and its bombing raids are folded into that adventurous, honorable, legendary history—which is perhaps just as disturbing as the bombings themselves.
A multifaceted, complex, and vital American Studies, public historic site for sure! Last San Diego one tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
3/22 Memory Day nominee: Greta Kempton, the Austrian Jewish immigrant whose compelling portraits of Harry Truman and his family, among many other prominent and iconic Americans, led her to be known as “America’s Court Painter,” and contributed some of the more lasting images of American political and social life in the late 20th century.