Weapon of war or work of art? The liberal conscience is assaulted by Stealth

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The Independent Culture
"Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands," sing the girls in the Book of Samuel, and King Saul is gravely offended at the implied slight on his character. But no one sings songs of praise like that any more - not in this part of the world at least, or not at official occasions anyway. The idea of openly celebrating warfare as such is off our agenda. In public ceremonies and in the arts, an attitude of solemn commemoration is the nearest thing; and the arts, usually, are even more unenthusiastic.

The instruments of war find no more favour. The chorale of homage to a nuclear warhead in Michael Berkeley and Ian McEwan's oratorio Or Shall We Die was, it needn't be said, savagely ironic. And even the men who gave us "Gotcha!" would probably feel that an annual state parade of military hardware was not quite the British way. We do, however, have the Farnborough Airshow. It's on telly too.

"It's extraordinary in appearance - graceful, beautiful, deadly..." so said one of the Farnborough commentators during Wednesday's broadcast, as he gazed up in wonder at the new B2 "Spirit" Stealth Bomber. "It's an absolutely amazing sight. Its carefully crafted shape and ultra-secret Stealth coatings give the aircraft a practically non-existent radar signature. Head-on it's hard to spot and it's extremely quiet. The Spirit hardly whispers as it glides by..."

And who wouldn't share his emotion? The Spirit requires no artistic celebration, it's a work of art in itself - and a very modernist one at that. It resembles a piece of dark origami or a designer-boomerang: a regular right-angled triangle with a zig-zag hypotenuse, a pure geometrical abstraction, hard- edged and perfectly smooth. There's no surface detailing, no excrescent attachments - no ornamentation so to speak. It's flat and sharp as a blade, seemingly a solid not a hollow object.

This makes it scarily uncreaturely. Unlike most other aircraft, civilian or military, it lacks any anatomy that can be read as quasi-animal or birdlike. There are no separate wings or fins or jets to stand for body- parts; likewise no snouty nose or frontal cockpit-screen to make a face. Comforting anthropomorphism can't get a purchase. The familiar articulation of head, body and limbs is erased. It's a featureless thing in which there's no way to recognise yourself. You hardly imagine there are men inside it.

Its operation becomes mysterious. It shows no visible means of propulsion or attack. As it moves, its power-source seems to be, not any physical force, but rather its own solid self-containment: it's charged with an aura, surrounding it and emanating from it, as if it were a magic stone. Again this is like the modernist artwork, the streamlined sculpture or skyscraper, contained, radiant, impermeable - the object that aspires, though sheer purity, to transcend its own physicality. The plane floats in silence. It is, radar-wise, almost invisible. They called it Spirit with good reason.

What's beautiful, mysterious and scary are one here. The Spirit is the epitome of the modern weapon and of the uncanny nature of contemporary warfare. It's no flagrant killing-machine, but something aesthetic and anaesthetic. It embodies the dreams of video targeting and surgical strikes, in which the instruments of war become a thing remote from their flesh and blood operators and their flesh and blood victims.

You might say, too, that it's the perfect Farnborough showpiece. For what's striking about the whole occasion is the way it admires the grace and power of weapons without mentioning their intended ends, treats them in fact as if they were ends in themselves. All attention is on the flying technology. The commentators never speak of the carnage these "amazing" things are made to cause, and only obliquely of the field of action ("devastating blows to the Iraqi war-machine"). You get the aerobatic displays. The dog-fights and bomb-sites are left to the imagination.

You might say that. And it's true, those commentators don't sound very sensitive to what they're saying and not saying. But for a liberal conscience to find this approach hypocritical or euphemistic is to risk bad faith of another sort. We have these weapons, after all, and almost everyone, of whatever conscience, accepts that we have to have them and use them sometimes. The Farnborough people admire them, but don't dwell on their uses. Liberals think it's wrong to admire them, and would rather not have to look at them at all; not be reminded that how we live requires their existence. But neither party ultimately wills them away. They just set their "hypocrisies" - the things they prefer to ignore - at different points.

And what would be more honest, more consistent? For the Farnborough folk to revel in slaughter like that chorus in the Book of Samuel? For liberals to affirm an absolute disarmed pacifism? But almost everyone holds back from both a real war ethic and a real peace ethic. And almost nobody can maintain a right attitude to weapons, because it's impossible to find a stable position in between those two extremes. So our weapons remain a great anomaly, things we can't abjure and can't embrace, graceful, beautiful, deadly, or however you phrase it.

Thomas Sutcliffe returns next week

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