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Armed Forces

Marketing the Military

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I check my watch as I hurry to work--it's just after noon. A knot of people block my way onto Daley Plaza, their eyes fixed on some common point. Compelled to look with them, I see a green-shirted man leap off a ledge nearly ten stories up. He swings out from the wall of the County Building as he drops, then tightens his grip on a rope encircling his waist and crashes sideways into the stone wall. Several people wince, though no echoing thud reaches our ears so many floors below.

It is Armed Forces Day, and the military is putting on a show at the plaza. The green-shirted man slips along the wall, then drops further to the sidewalk. As his comrades help untangle the ropes, three more soldiers appear on the narrow ledge above. They laugh casually as a second man falls down the building, his arms and legs thrown wide as if he were saying "Look Ma, no hands." The soldiers laugh again as he catches himself, feet first against the wall, and drops easily the remaining 15 feet to the ground.

I'm thinking that there are easier ways to descend the County Building--I myself have taken the elevator many times--but find it somehow appropriate that soldiers would rappel down its side as if fleeing some terror within. Not quite the evacuation from the American embassy in Saigon, but close enough for a May afternoon in Chicago.

Two more men have landed safely, and I turn into Daley Plaza, thick with people and sounds. The only things missing from the carnival atmosphere are the smells and colorful tents of food vendors.

I wonder whether this crowd has turned out just for the military, but then I see a stage on which two or three brightly dressed women dance to the music of a dark-skinned guitarist. I think that maybe they are South African. I want them to be South African and dancing an impassioned political counterpoint to the sterility of the armed forces. But a person next to me isn't sure where they're from. He thinks maybe they're South American. A dozen people, scattered on five dozen folding chairs, sit in apparent acceptance of all dancing nationalities. Three of them are asleep in the midday sun.

Swinging back toward the center of the plaza, I watch an older black sergeant hoist a white child in to inspect a compact green van packed tight with equipment--sort of a mobile command unit. The sergeant smiles like a used-car salesman, and I half expect the boy's father to kick the van's wheels. Behind me a seaman in white with an eager smile explains to a small group the workings of an aircraft carrier modeled on a vastly reduced scale. I figure an actual carrier is approximately 150 times longer than its eight feet. The model lies atop a flatbed trailer, which is parked beside the chain surrounding an eternal flame dedicated to veterans of all wars.

Nearby a soldier spins slowly in the turret of his tank. Two men in their early 30s standing next to me nod appreciatively, as if commenting on a ballet. The first, wearing gym shoes, says something about a "quarter inch of armor, and still the shells go right through." His speech is thick in his toothless mouth. The second man, wearing a pinstripe suit and a tight smile, shakes his head in wonder at the technology. A fond familiarity with things mechanical creates the bond between these men.

To my right, an F-15 Eagle aircraft guards the east side of the eternal flame. It's much smaller than a commercial plane but large enough to make you wonder how they got it here. Before it stands a plywood sign describing the Soviet air menace and the need for a strong American response. The sign says little about the F-15 Eagle itself. A small line has formed to climb a portable stairway and peer into the jet's cockpit. Three men in pinstripe suits wait silently--one reads a newspaper--while a man in a windbreaker lifts a young boy to the cockpit's edge.

Except for the dozen or so soldiers exhibiting their weapons, most of the people roaming the plaza seem too old or too young to enlist. But this display is not about recruiting today. This is the marketing of the military. Impress the adults of today and recruit their children tomorrow. Make civilians feel good about how their tax dollars are spent; let them feel safe with the clean-cut youths who guard them. No $200 toilet seats are displayed here; instead we've got tanks and planes and live soldiers crashing into the walls of the County Building: "Technology is good. America is good," they seem to say.

When I walk around the jet, in a hurry now after my unintended wanderings, I find three dozen Palestinians marching in a tight circle around a woman holding a microphone. "Palestine is our land," she declares, and the marchers repeat her claim. A smiling woman offers sheets of paper that describe 40 years of Palestinian oppression. I wonder about the truth of the woman's statement, "Palestine is our land." Could she make such a statement in Palestine? If not, does that make it any less her land? How does she feel competing for attention with the entire U.S. armed forces and a dance troupe that might be South African?

The smiling pamphleteer hands me a sheet. I look back across the plaza, unable to distinguish the sounds of the Navy from those of the Air Force or of the dancers or the Palestinians. As I leave, I see that the ledge high up on the County Building is empty.

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

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