ISSUE 34
SUMMER 2001
Peace Matters index
 

 

 

   

 a blighted land

 
 


ONLINE contents

- a blighted land
- the vision thing
- full spectrum dominance
- obstacles to communication
- child soldiers



now empty cruise missile silo

 



The radial pattern of bones and feathers among the lady's-tresses and the dwarf gorse declares this to be a site of violence. Such torn remnants of a bird, disembowelled and, it’s clear, ravenously consumed by a fox or some other hungry creature, provide for many people a sure proof of the 'naturalness' - and therefore the inevitability - of violence. A shaky premise followed up by a shaky argument: apparently enough to entrench belief in the efficacy of armed force.
   But ‘violence’ is a slippery word - far more an expression of attitude and world view than an objective definition of an event. Linking the feeding habits of a fox with the darker side of human behaviour tells us nothing about our world but quite a lot about ourselves.
This is (to make another subjective use of the word) a violent place. The newly-grown mosses and lichens, over which the fox stalks its prey and the hawks swoop down on unwary mice and voles, draw their sustenance from a troubled soil. It’s a patch of earth which was, for the greater part of the last century, home to some very unnatural violence. The soil was so abused that it now requires a kind of technological exorcism: ‘bioremediation’ - a technique specially developed for this blighted land.

   In May 1941, bombers began flattening the grass. From all over the country, more-or-less enthusiastic young men came to learn how to incinerate people from above the clouds. Of course that was not how most of them saw it; they were here to train as pilots, navigators, gunners and bombardiers. Over the following four years, many of them died a death just as terrible as those they inflicted on dwellers far below their airborne bomb bays.

Since then the RAF and USAF have abused this land on and off at their convenience, at the beckoning of their political masters, and with either widespread support or indifference from the rest of us. Over the years the grass was gradually concreted over, and there emerged the longest runways in Europe, as required by the planners of World War Three.

Habits of thinking remained unchanged, but time progressed. New technology from the ever-inventive weapons manufacturers made tons of tarmac unnecessary. Now deep holes were dug instead, where the masterminds of warfare could be protected from potential unpleasantness above. Overhead, huge concrete hangars were built to conceal the very weapons which made this apparently rural spot a prime target for other missiles thousands of miles away.

But in 1987, due to totally unexpected changes of mind in Iceland, most of this land and everything on it became effectively redundant. In 1997 it finally reverted, still in its maltreated state, to the local council. In November of that year, the perimeter fence, once shaken by thousands of outraged women and symbolically rent by principled snippers, was equally symbolically cut at a photo opportunity set up by the council. It has since vanished. So have Europe's once longest runways, pulverised into rubble, much of which now lies under that other contested local feature - the Newbury by-pass.
remains of perimiter fence

Though the runways have gone, and heather and grass taken over once more, their traces on the land will remain for centuries to come. The fate of the base’s latest additions, installed during the conflict between Ronald Reagan's America and what he called the Evil Empire, is still uncertain. The vast reinforced concrete silos, built to house cruise missiles carrying nuclear weapons and immediately grassed over to blend into the landscape (an ironic anticipation of today), may just be too expensive to destroy.

This July sees the ending of the inspection regime set up by the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The remaining part of the air base, containing the missile silos and other weapons stores, will also pass into civilian hands. The Russian Treaty Compliance Officers have to give 72 hours notice prior to an inspection, but a helpful local authority manager can cut this time to zero for a mere civilian.

Standing on top of one of the silos today, it’s hard to imagine the scene only a few years ago, let alone the time when the first bombers arrived and Eisenhower came to rally the troops. The great hangars are empty now except for the birds which have made them their home. The birds are easily startled, and in the derelict vastness the sudden sound of beating wings is magnified and made menacing.

The operating mechanism for the blast-proof doors has been irreparably disabled as part of the INF Treaty. Not much else is left. The functions of what specialised equipment does remain are hard to guess - requirements for preparing Armageddon aren’t part of most people’s general knowledge.

But the electric switch gear, the complex piping for the hydraulic system to operate the blast doors, and, high up on the wall, the two telephones through which the drivers of the vehicles carrying the missiles received their last orders - these commonplace devices all testify to the hard work of the people who made and installed them. They were ordinary people, doing an ordinary job, and almost certainly with no thought of violence in their mind.

But everyone who worked on this site knew exactly what it was they were building. Unlike the fox whose genetic inheritance gives it no choice about its eating habits, we can choose whether - and how - to commit violence. The fox was simply having its lunch; the men and women who built and maintained these silos made a personal contribution to world instability.

Beyond a metal door - it’s a tight squeeze to get through - a low concrete tunnel slopes sharply downwards. Despite the warmth outside, the air is cold, and the last light soon gives way to total darkness. In the faint torch light the passage turns right, then left, then left again. Is this to counteract the effects of a blast? A blast inside, or outside? Twenty, thirty metres in: still going down. The only sound is that of the soft footfall and the ocassional crunch of something underfoot. Here’s a safe door, thicker than most bank employees would ever see - but hanging open. More twists and turns. Deeper still, the torchlight falls on a notice: 'Pick up the phone, press the button, face the camera. Identify yourself'.
Jan Melichar

 
         
         
     

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