Robert Fisk: Grand old warbirds with a guilty past

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The Independent Online

Castle Air Force Base has a dark memory for a lady I meet in Fresno.

"You could see the draftees in San Francisco, crying and holding on to their mothers and fathers," she tells me. "They didn't want to go to Vietnam. They were very unhappy. And if they refused to get on the bus to Castle AFB, they were dragged on board and chained to the seats." They went by bus but I took the train, heading for Fresno in the heat of the San Joaquin Valley, dun-grey hills, sandy ranges broken by dust-covered orchards and corn, to lecture Americans on the their iniquities in the Middle East. My usual paint pots.

A bad start at Sacramento station. To buy my ticket, I have to show my passport. The 9/11 attacks meant ID for rail tickets in America. "Why, you're a senior, sir," says the clerk. "For you, it's only $17." Stunned, I am. I've never been a "senior" before. For a moment, I want to pay full fare, to grab back a couple of years. But then, 40 miles from Fresno – just when the Amtrak restaurant car manager offers to send me an unfinished manuscript of her biography of life on the Canadian Halifax-Montreal line – my still-schoolboy eyes catch sight of the wing of a B-24 Liberator bomber to the left of the train. Behind it is a massive B-52, even a sand-bleached old Delta bomber of the RAF with a bloody great English flag on the tail, standing in a garden of dried grass. Planes almost rivalled steam locos in the youthful Fisk pantheon of obsessions. But it took 24 hours in Fresno to discover that this desolate museum of war was once Castle Air Force Base, the place of the weeping soldiers.

So in return for three two-hour rants on the Middle East, I blackmailed my long-suffering (liberal) American host to drive me back via this sandy garden and we found it outside the one-horse town of Atwater; "Global Power Through Airpower," it said at the gate. "Preserving History for Generations." Headquarters – long ago – of the 93rd Bombardment Wing, named after a certain Frederick Castle, shot down in his B-17 over Belgium, jumped by three Messerschmitt 109s on Christmas Eve, 1944, refusing to jettison his bombs in case they hit Allied forces, helping most of his crew to bail out before crashing into the ground. A tough-looking man, he stared at me from a glass case in the base museum. I bet he wasn't crying when he boarded for his last mission at Lavenham. And I have a faint vision, reading that Suffolk name, of fens and long grass.

There's a B-17 right in front of me, a real Flying Fortress of the wartime 8th Air Force, bristling with guns, a tiny Perspex canopy for the rear gunner and for me a memory of that Randall Jarrell line – "flak and the nightmare fighters" – the poem ending back at base with the remains of the hero washed out of the turret with a hose. It hunches there like a witch, "Virgin's Delight" painted below the cockpit by its long-ago crew. "Grand old warbirds," the museum pamphlet calls this hot metal graveyard with its Cold War fighters and bombers, the bleak, dark green and grey B-52, used to bomb the Iraqis in the 1991 Desert Storm liberation of Kuwait. And yes, I remembered the dead they left on the ground, the corpses we found north of the Basra "highway of death", civilians as well as Iraqi soldiers, blown to bits; I watched the desert dogs tucking into them one bleak morning 19 years ago. I told my Fresno listeners about all this. Silent, they were. I didn't mention that one of these same planes blitzed a suburb of Kandahar in 2001, the survivors later taking out their fury on me.

The Vulcan, a gift from HMG, sat near the railway track, down-at-heel cockpit windows gummed up with sand, last deployed in the Falklands war, once holding (so the museum claimed) the record for the longest bombing raid in history, eclipsed only by Desert Storm. I noted down the aggression of these aircraft. Dragon, Vulcan, Tornado, Lodestar, Expediter, Eagle, Beaver, Blue Canoe, Husky, Shooting Star, Thunderstreak, Sabre, Scorpion, Peacemaker – this, needless to say, was the RB-36H, "the largest bomber ever built" – Eagle, Albatross, Thunderchief, Skyhawk, Tomcat, Crusader, Dagger, Voodoo, Invader, Blackbird. It was all there: aggression and mother nature and the outback, the native American and the friendly dog, the god of war and the star-filled heavens. A few of them were my private albatrosses, like the F-14D which was "over the skies of Baghdad in 2004" and the F-15 which, dressed in the colours of America's Greatest Ally in the Middle East, has – before my very eyes – killed an awful lot of civilians in Lebanon. There was even a Soviet MiG-17. But it was in desert camouflage and carried Egyptian markings. No explanation, of course.

The museum itself was infinitely sad; a clutch of looted Nazi memorabilia, an aero-engine, uniforms and model aircraft and an illustrated poem by a former pilot who participated in the 1991 air raids which pulverised not just Saddam's army but the entire civilian infrastructure of Iraq. "In the shadows of war We took to Flight/For Freedom and humanity We were willing to Fight... Returning Victorious from the war that we fought/Bringing Peace to the East was the goal that we sought,/Castle Warriors in their Greatest Form/Snuffed out the beast in Desert Storm."

Dear God, what was one to make of this stuff? There was a copy of the Merced Sun-Star, the local daily, the headline for 17 January 1991: "Jets Bomb Baghdad". No suffering. No sanctions. No 2003 invasion, no anarchy of 100,000 Iraqi dead or half a million or a million. "Peace to the East." Just like that. Each day this week, I read the local Californian papers, always with that column of US fatalities in Afghanistan sandwiched down page inside with the crossword puzzle and the horoscope. Yes, we die too. Then in Palo Alto, I get my office mail package and there's a letter from Geoff Jones, retired comic illustrator, to tell me that he refused to work for the Second World War comics about which I wrote last month. In that war, he lived near Malvern, son of a 1914-18 Flanders veteran, a schoolboy watching the 1944 D-Day casualties brought back to the military hospital next to his home. His own words should end this grim column of mine.

"Many had bits of limbs missing, others were blinded and helped by their 'mates'. Probably the worst thing was the way they used to transport 'shell-shocked' patients in open cages on the backs of trucks between the various camps! They would be screaming and yelling... one managed to escape, climbed an electricity pylon on my uncle's farm and fell to earth, a charred corpse..."