Ten at night on July Fourth, and the gunship helicopter comes in low over Seattle’s Lake Union, the prelude to the fireworks show. A giant Stars and Stripes hangs from it as it parades slowly around the lake, an ominous matte-black presence made all the more threatening by the music blaring from the loudspeakers at the north end of the lake. That music was chosen by someone who was either cinematically ignorant or had zero sense of irony, because until last year, it was Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ — the same music that accompanies the long tracking shot of gunship helicopters flying off to napalm the hell out of a Vietnamese village in perhaps the best war movie ever made:
Even in liberal Seattle, nobody seems to question why an attack helicopter is considered a suitable means of displaying the flag. National independence is easily militarized, since it is often — far too often — achieved at the cost of war. “Blood and treasure” is the current phrase for this cost, and a particularly abhorrent one, not least because it seems to imply that blood is not treasured. We are now past the 1,000 mark for US dead in Afghanistan, and approaching the 5,000 mark in Iraq (nobody keeps precise tallies of the far greater fatalities of Afghanis and Iraqis, said to be anywhere from “tens of thousands,” as though an extra ten thousand here and there makes no difference, to close to 200,000). So this year, when the gunship flies around the lake, albeit sans the Valkyries (did irony finally hit? or did someone catch up on their Netflix queue?), the sight and sound of that massive metal weapon looming and booming over my houseboat will again make me feel not pride in my American citizenship, but anxiety. And not just because of the association with ‘Apocalypse Now.’
That gunship makes me see the fireworks differently. I still go ‘Wow,’ but there’s no innocence in it. Instead, I remember how people watching TV went ‘Wow’ as ordnance arced over the night skies of Baghdad in 2003, or how they tuned in to the cameras in the nose-cones of those peculiarly imprecise ‘precision’ missiles in the Kuwait war, as though the light and sound effects had nothing to do with real lives, real blood, real bones pulverized into the dust. The fireworks, I realize, are non-lethal versions of that lethal ordnance, the utterly literal illustration of the national anthem: “The rockets’ red glare/ The bombs bursting in air/ Gave proof through the night/ That our flag was still there.”
But how strange that rockets and bombs are needed to prove independence. The insecurity behind those lines from the anthem is clear, which may be part of why we’re now mired deeper than ever in Afghanistan. Two hundred and thirty-four years have passed, yet even in Seattle, we still need to send in the gunships.