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Reading: The War Against Nevada

The bomb craters and twisted metal and spattered mud create a landscape of devastation. You can imagine the screaming explosions and you can imagine what is there now, the silence of the desert.

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When armies collide, the toll of war is obvious. For most of its history the geographical entity that is the United States has been spared that price, yet in preparing for foreign conflicts the U.S. military has subjected our own land and our own people to a taste of the destruction it can inflict. Richard Misrach's new polemic, Bravo 20: The Bombing of the American West, is a look at the history of that war at home.

Misrach, a photographer who lives in California, is best known for his ongoing series of landscapes of the American west, "Desert Cantos." Bravo 20 is a journey in words, photographs, and drawings through the history of military abuse of the land and its people, as epitomized by the story of one small bombing range. The book's text is written by Myriam Weisang Misrach, a free-lance writer who married the photographer after joining him on this project.

The land. The last ice age left much of central Nevada covered with large, shallow lakes. As the climate has become hotter and drier, most of that water has vanished, leaving large alkali flats separated by mountain ranges. The Sierra Nevada range keeps most of the moisture from the Pacific Ocean from reaching Nevada. The resulting dry, clear climate has evolved a specialized ecosystem favored by greasewood, eagles, hawks, mourning doves, kit foxes, kangaroo rats.

The wide expanses of land without much evidence of civilization and the typical lack of cloud cover make the high desert of Nevada ideal for high-speed flying. The Federal Aviation Administration has designated about 70 percent of Nevada's airspace for at least occasional military use; about half the airspace over the continental U.S. now has similar restrictions.

A monolith of volcanic rock stands in the middle of one of the alkali flats of central Nevada. The Northern Paiute Indians called it Wolf's Head; white settlers dubbed it Lone Rock. The only relief for miles, it remains a striking landmark.

The military. After the attack on Pearl Harbor the military began looking for inland bases out of reach of a Japanese assault on the Pacific coast. The Navy set up an air station near the town of Fallon in western Nevada. In 1944 the Department of the Interior authorized the Navy to begin using nearby Lone Rock as a bombing target. Lone Rock and 41,000 acres of surrounding alkali flatland were dubbed Bravo 20.

The Navy was authorized to use Bravo 20 until 1952. It neglected to update that authorization, even though it was reminded to do so by the Bureau of Land Management, which administers the land.

A fighter bomber doing 2,000 miles per hour covers a lot of ground very quickly, so training exercises require large areas. In addition, modern flight trainers emphasize that pilots should be adept at flying close to the ground, the better to avoid antiaircraft fire. "The next war will be fought down among the trees," said one Air Force pilot.

The people. Dick Holmes and Dr. Richard Bargen, residents of the Fallon area, were both private pilots. They were alarmed in 1982 to hear of the Navy's plans for a huge supersonic operations area (SOA) east of Fallon. Though civilian traffic wouldn't be restricted there, military jets would be allowed to fly at up to 2,000 miles per hour only 100 feet above the ground. Bargen says that a pilot flying a Cessna at 200 miles per hour would have less than five seconds to avoid a collision with a fighter doing three times the speed of sound--if he saw the other plane at all. Bargen operated a flying ambulance service for patients in remote areas and was concerned that he wouldn't be able to reach some areas or would have to take longer routes to avoid the SOA.

Holmes and Bargen found the Navy unresponsive to their objections, and to the complaints of numerous other area residents, who were, as they wrote in a petition to the local base commander, "completely fed up with the ear splitting, nerve-racking, and heart-rending noise of these bombers. . . . It is impossible to eat, sleep, work or relax due to the constant noise." Residents of the nearby Dixie Valley, in fact, had moved out of their homes after Navy planes caused more than 500 sonic booms in the valley between 1982 and 1987. Worse, the jets and cruise missiles often roared over at treetop level. The Navy paid compensation, but residents say they received only 10 to 30 percent of their properties' real value.

Numerous other area residents attended hearings to complain about being buzzed by low-flying aircraft and shaken by sonic booms. A local school-bus driver claimed that a Navy jet had flown directly past him one morning as he drove children to school; he said the shock almost caused him to lose control of the bus. FAA regulations prohibit aircraft from flying within 500 feet of people and buidings, but the agency cannot take disciplinary action against military personnel who violate the regulations.

Residents who complained had to contend not only with unresponsive (or outright hostile) military officials, but also with local boosters who felt the military's contribution to the local economy excused any misbehavior.

The protest. After extensive research Holmes and Bargen discovered that the Navy had never updated its authorization to use Bravo 20. When their protests to lawmakers proved futile, they decided the only course left was to camp out at Bravo 20. Since it was public land, they had every right to be there. They were arrested for trespassing, but the Navy dropped the charges.

In 1986 Richard Misrach heard about the protest and visited Bargen, who suggested that Misrach camp out at Lone Rock. Bargen and Holmes escorted the photographer to the landmark, driving slowly, picking their way through a maze of bomb craters and unexploded bombs. Then the two Nevadans left. Misrach was scared and thought he had been stupid to come--until the next morning. "The landscape was magnificent," he writes in the preface of Bravo 20. "I was surrounded by the vast expanse of the alkali flat, which acted like a great reflector of light. As the sun broke the horizon, Lone Rock cast its shadow across the landscape. Like strange animation, it began shrinking. The sky, the colors, the atmosphere, were cool and brilliant. The landscape boasted the classic beauty characteristic of the desert.

"It was also the most graphically ravaged environment I had ever seen. I found myself at the epicenter, the heart of the apocalypse. Alone, no sounds, no movement. No buildings, no roads. No indication of life, no promise of civilization. Only the smell of rusted metal. Bombs and lifeless holes. Side by side were great beauty and great horror."

Other protesters came to spend days and nights at Lone Rock. The Navy suspended operations there, pending congressional approval of the application it finally submitted to withdraw Bravo 20 from public access.

While Congress debated, Misrach spent more time at Bravo 20, captivated by the strange light and the stranger surroundings.

The water. Many of the bomb craters at Bravo 20 were filled with water when Misrach was there--a surprise in a state as arid as Nevada. Actually, the Fallon area is rich in water. Federally sponsored irrigation projects began supporting large-scale agriculture there in the first decade of this century.

The Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge protects the Stillwater Marsh, a remnant of the huge lake that once covered Bravo 20's alkali flats and an important wintering ground for waterfowl. Those flats flood periodically after one or more wet winters. Much of Bravo 20 was underwater for several years early in the 1980s. When the floodwaters receded, seven million dead fish littered the ground between Lone Rock and the marsh. Refuge employees found large numbers of dead and deformed birds. Some speculated that toxins from bombs at Bravo 20--as well as napalm and jet fuel--had leached into the water and killed the animals.

The Indians. The Numa or Northern Paiute Indians regarded Wolf's Head as a sacred site. When the marsh waters withdrew in 1984, hundreds of graves of Native Americans, some more than 3,000 years old, were revealed. When the Navy went before Congress in 1984 to have its use of the bombing range reauthorized, it conceded in its environmental statement that some archaeological artifacts had been found at Lone Rock in the 1930s. The Navy claimed that the bombing would prevent unauthorized persons from collecting these artifacts.

The photos. Misrach's pictures do not seem to match his words about the grandeur of the surroundings. The landscape consists of the alkali flat, the mountains in the distance, and the sky. That's it. In those photos that don't include obvious human artifacts, it's very difficult to judge the scale. Lone Rock might be little taller than a person (in fact, it was about 160 feet high when the photos were taken--down from 260 feet before bombing began). Bomb craters as big as living rooms look just inches high.

Some of Misrach's photographs do convey some of the strangeness of the lighting. At times the alkali flats take on a glaring but sort of sickly white color, and we can imagine the heat of summer noon. Other images, taken when there were clouds in the sky, feature bizarre colors--muddy browns and grays that seem to belong to cheap postcards or poorly hand-tinted National Geographic pictures of half a century ago.

Scattered around this landscape are demolished targets--cars, trucks, decommissioned armored personnel carriers--shrapnel, and the bombs. Some are dummy bombs, others are live ammunition that never exploded. The wrecked targets lie strewed in various states of destruction. But the bombs seem almost alive. We read in the text that when they fail to explode, the bombs may burrow into the ground and emerge elsewhere. And so we see them, lying prone on the ground, or buried with their tail fins protruding, or--most oddly--with only their noses sticking out, as if they were testing the weather before their next move. They are everywhere, and somehow you get the feeling that they must move when you turn your back and then freeze when you look again.

The craters and twisted metal and spattered mud create, of course, a landscape of devastation. You can imagine the screaming explosions. You can also imagine what is there now--the silence, as if everyone had died and now there is only the vast space of the desert.

None of Misrach's photographs, though, have the impact of the frontispiece photo, which was taken by anonymous Navy personnel flying over Bravo 20 after the protesters showed up. Lone Rock is off in the distance. Two people are barely visible in the foreground. I might not have spotted them at all if they weren't standing near a car that is itself quite tiny. The entire landscape around the people and the rock is Swiss cheese. Thousands and thousands of holes, most of them big enough to park the car in.

The park. Misrach proposes in part three of the book (the story is part one, the photos part two) the creation of Bravo 20 National Park. This proposal is accompanied by drawings and architectural renderings; the landscape architects have even provided a cost estimate ("about one-fourth the current cost of one FA-18 jet," Misrach writes).

The park's main purpose, according to Misrach, would be to educate visitors about "the history of military abuse in peacetime." In a larger sense it would be a "permanent reminder of how military, government, corporate, and individual practices can harm the earth." Among the park's features would be Devastation Drive, a circular road with Lone Rock at its center; a walk-in crater ("to give the viewer a sense of both the often deceptive scale and the power of an explosive blast"); a Boardwalk of the Bombs, for close-up views; and a visitor center styled after an ammunition bunker. There would even be a camping area.

All of which might seem somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but why shouldn't we take it seriously? We currently have national parks commemorating Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields; why shouldn't we have a park commemorating war on the earth--and on the people of Nevada? Perhaps it would get visitors thinking about the less obvious costs of war--although the military might find that making its history campy (included in the proposal is a design for souvenir "camouflaged porta-potty salt and pepper shakers") is an effective way to defuse (so to speak) the real issues. It's fun reading, anyway, and it got me thinking about what other parks deserve creation. How about the Lincoln Savings and Loan National Financial Monument? The Exxon Valdez Mobile National Maritime Park?

The latest. Most of the Navy pilots stationed on aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf have done a training stint at Fallon Naval Air Station, and perhaps even bombed Lone Rock. As the book went to press, bombing had resumed at Bravo 20; the Navy had gained permission to withdraw the land from public access until 2001. The bill permitting renewed bombing is much stricter than most military land-withdrawal bills; it requires the Navy to do an environmental assessment and clean up some areas. When Fallon Naval Air Station conducted a clean-up exercise in 1989, technicians recovered 1,389 live bombs that had fallen outside bombing ranges. The exercise was named "Operation Ugly Baby."

The school bus. Four of Misrach's photos depict a shattered yellow school bus that was used for target practice. I imagine that the Navy was being cost conscious when it acquired the used bus. But I also imagine that the Navy is not as alert to symbolism as Richard Misrach. They couldn't have known that a bus sitting in the midst of hundreds of bomb craters could become such an eloquent image of violence against humanity and nature.

Bravo 20: The Bombing of the American West by Richard Misrach and Myriam Weisang Misrach, Johns Hopkins University Press, $49.95 (hardcover), $25.95 (paper).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Richard Misrach.

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