- Aesthetic of Strength: the Air Force Memorial and Virilio’s Last War
“We have to face the facts: today, speed is war, the last war.”- Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics, p 139
Three giant stainless steel shoots sprouted in the fall of 2006 on a hill to the immediate west of the Pentagon in Arlington, VA.1 The tallest of these somewhat un-seasonal growths rises 270 feet above the ground and high above the Washington D.C. skyline. Designed by James Ingo Freed to evoke “flight and the flying spirit” in the abstract manner of Italian Futurism, the Air Force Memorial’s “bomb burst” design captures connections between the speed of planes and the explosive cargo they deliver in what could be either the contrails of three jets rocketing toward space or the dust traces of a bomb’s concussion, depending on the viewer’s imagined distance and speed in relation to the giant curved quarter-arches. It is by prompting such acts of imagination that memorials invite participation in their ideas. This essay examines the Air Force Memorial in order to understand the creative ways in which it prompts thought (particularly as related to problems of speed and strength) and explores how those ideas could transform the need people have for war.
“Today,” Paul Virilio has claimed, “speed is war, the last war.” Speed, moreover, evaporates distance bringing war so close to us as to create a war on our ‘selves.’ In its celebration of strength calibrated to concerns of speed, distance, and perspective, the memorial presents some possibilities for imagining a shift in the location and direction of war. Counter to Virilio’s yearning for older and slower time, this essay attempts to embrace speed and war in order to challenge our need to destroy those who are far away.2 The memorial celebrates destruction but leaves open who or what is being destroyed; is it, for example, a specific territory or is it the very idea of territory? In distinction with the early modern period of national states and colonies in which wars were for territory, Virilio asserts that contemporary wars, wars of speed, erase the utility of territory. For Virilio, speed is not only war, it is the last war. Speed, he claims, will drive humanity to extinguish the possibilities of its own freedom.
The suppression of national boundaries and the hyper-communicability of the world do not enlarge the space of freedom. They are, rather, a sign of its disappearance, its collapse, before the expansion of an all-too-tangible totalitarian power, a technological control over civilized societies that is growing ever more rapid and refined.3
Speed, with its claustrophobic field of totalitarian power, however, might not be the final war. Maybe humans have a chance to develop and protect conceptions of freedom, if they exploit the possibilities for strength that speed presents. The Air Force Memorial, as an expression of ideas about speed and war, can stimulate thinking about strength and even reduce the enthusiasm with which the U.S.A. makes war on weak and poor people.4 And it could even help achieve Virilio’s objectives, “to effect the most necessary de-institutionalization of all: that of the military.”5 Speed might indeed be the final war, but more specifically, it could be a war defined by a never-ending attack on the parts of ourselves that attempt the destruction of others.
Typically, Washington D.C. memorials are designed to enforce interpretations that glorify war and sacrifice for the state. The memorials that take a different approach often find themselves reconfigured. The National Capital Planning Commission, for example, approved $100 million in 2006 to build a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center, to control the interpretations of the Wall Memorial designed by Maya Lin.6 The 25,000 square-foot underground center would, according to the sponsoring House Bill, “ensure the proper remembrance of Vietnam veterans and the Vietnam War.”7 Pressures to maintain comforting national narratives in Washington memorials are difficult to resist. James Ingo Freed’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum attempted to let “memory be sufficiently ambiguous and open-ended...