Luftwaffe, go home

  • Not stealthy: German Tornado

    U.S. Air Force photo

The noise began as an explosion, then quickly matured into the scream of engines. Racing across the sky, provenance obscured by speed, the jet rocketed away, leaving the blast echoing in my skull like a loose tire iron.

Count me among the 13 percent of residents in areas of rural New Mexico, Texas and Arizona who will remain "highly annoyed," according to a new environmental impact statement, at an expansion of low-level military overflights intended to accommodate the training needs of the German Air Force (see Hotline, page 2).

I moved to an enclave of private land bordering national forest to be able to taste apples from my yard, to learn to distinguish a gray vireo from a warbling vireo, and to watch lightning dance on nearby mountains unsullied by street lights. With such advantages at hand, I regard quiet not as a luxury but as the soul's own substrate.

Currently, the overflights are infrequent, and if military planners were to rate me, I'd only stack up as "somewhat annoyed." But under the new proposal, minimum flight altitudes will be lowered to just 100 feet - tree-top level - and their frequency will increase dramatically at all times of day and night.

The issue is larger than the annoyance of a few lovers of quiet. As the environmental impact statement notes, the German Air Force is training over the Southwest as part of a larger process of integration of European and American military forces. In Germany, military overflights are banned below 1,000 feet. So the neo-Luftwaffe first turned to Labrador. But protests by indigenous Inuit people reportedly limited training flights there. In response, former President George Bush offered to open up American skies to German training. In return, I suppose, if the Inuit ever give us any trouble, we'll be able to count on the Germans.

I've never gotten into a quarrel with an Inuit, and if they have something I need, well, I suppose I'd just better downgrade my needs accordingly. Open markets probably do lead to open skies, and that's precisely the problem. With no place exempt from the inexorable rules of commodification, the globe becomes a giant Monopoly set, and the atmosphere above a game of Risk.

I can probably live with being highly annoyed. My cholesterol level is low and I don't work at the post office. But what about the rest of the living world? Desert bighorn sheep, a state-listed threatened species in New Mexico, evolved hearing sufficiently acute to detect the breath of a mountain lion in ambush. The EIS states that as long as people don't stay out of doors 24 hours a day, "there is little possibility of hearing loss' from the overflights. It adds that "protective noise criteria for animals (should) be taken to be the same as for humans." Even if that did reflect accurate biology, bighorn sheep might have to build themselves soundproof shelters to minimize their chances of going deaf.

I suppose that's only fair. While the rest of us pay rent or mortgage, the critters are getting a free ride. (Little-known fact: Bighorn sheep don't even pay grazing fees, much less contribute to the Democratic National Committee.) Why should there be places - vast, unproductive places, at that - dedicated to the sounds of water trickling down a canyon, birds warbling, or pine needles soughing in the wind?

We need to develop a vocabulary that can answer that fundamental question without resorting to the "Nimbyism" that first comes to mind when we hear the frightful cacophony of 21st century mock warfare. The ongoing militarization of the Southwest has everything to do with our gargantuan appetites for the world's goodies, be they oil, or uranium or coffee. And sating those appetites deafens us to the losses all around. We must learn to turn off our cars and televisions and coffee grinders much more often if even the most eloquent exponents of silence are ever to be understood.

Listen. The night sky is speaking. An ancient world strains to be heard.

Michael Robinson, a former HCN intern, is communications director of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity.

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