Sailors from the USS Makin Island marching in San Francisco. US Navy photo

Scrapped: The Naval Parade That Brings Military and Civilians Together

The cancellation of San Francisco’s Fleet Week damages America’s relationship with its armed forces

by KYLE MIZOKAMI

Two years ago this month, I was standing on the bridge of the USS Makin Island, at the time the Navy’s newest amphibious ship. It was a beautiful, bright blue day and we had just passed underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

Underneath me on the flight deck were helicopters of various kinds, and ringing the deck was a long, uninterrupted line of sailors and marines, saluting San Francisco as we passed it by.

I was hanging out with a young sailor from Montana and we were both admiring an outdoor television the size of a billboard mounted on a cruise ship docked at the Embarcadero. Here we were on vessel that cost more than a billion dollars, with enough of the latest war-making technology to level an entire neighborhood and we were impressed with a big screen TV.

The sailor was in naval intelligence and taking photos of nearby boats to send to San Diego. The Navy was looking for ships that could be shadowing the fleet. “Hey, you’re from San Francisco, right?” he asked, squinting through a large telephoto lens.

“I grew up here,” I said.

“I heard they don’t like the military here. Is that true?”

I sighed. There it is, I thought to myself. The question I had been dreading since I landed on the boat.

I told him that wasn’t really the case, and that he’d find out by himself. And he did, one way or another. Thousands of sailors and Marines found out, one way or another. That was San Francisco’s Fleet Week 2010.

Due to the federal budget sequestration, San Francisco Fleet Week 2013 was cancelled.

Martin B-10 bombers over San Francisco, 1936. National Air Museum photo

The Bay Area was a military town

It might not look like it today, but San Francisco was born a military town. The city was founded in 1776 by Spanish colonists who built the Presidio fort at the southern end of the Golden Gate. During the Second World War, military bases sprung up throughout the Bay Area, flowing American military power into the Pacific in the struggle against Japan.

Many of the bases stayed open during the Cold War, supporting the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Alameda Naval Air Station and the Concord Naval Weapons Station were located in the East Bay. Slightly farther afield was Hamilton Air Force base and Mare Island Shipyard. San Francisco itself had no less than four bases: Fort Mason, the Presidio, Treasure Island and Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard. The Bay Area was even a nuclear power, with nuclear-tipped missiles deployed in a vast network to protect the population against Soviet bombers.

All of these bases have closed. One by one they folded, relics of the Cold War and shuttered during the base cutbacks of the 1990s. The only military bases left in the Bay Area today are National Guard armories and reservist bases, scattered here and there at places like Camp Parks and Moffett Field.

When the bases went away, jobs went away, and some communities have struggled to cope. Vallejo and Alameda are two examples, as civilian services that catered to bases lost work.

As difficult as that was for local communities, it wasn’t just jobs that went away, but something more profound and further reaching. With the departure of the U.S. military, the people of San Francisco and the Bay Area severed their connection.

Fleet Week humanitarian assistance / disaster relief exhibition. Flickr user NicoleAbalde

This is what a societal rift looks like

A couple of years ago I was in a frozen yogurt shop in the Fillmore District, when a U.S. Army sergeant in uniform sat next to me. His right shoulder insignia indicated he’d served in a combat theater, either Iraq or Afghanistan. It occurred to me then, as it always does, that I had not seen anyone in a military uniform in San Francisco for years.

In more than 12 years of war, the Bay Area has been home to only 75 out of the 6,773 U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s just a little more than one percent, when the Bay Area is home to more than two percent of the national population. It gets even more striking: only three military personnel killed in Iraq or Afghanistan were from San Francisco.

What accounts for this? How is possible that a group of 1,429,000 people — the size of the active-duty military — can be such a rarity in and around a major city such as San Francisco?

The understanding I get from military and veterans is that the Bay Area is hostile to the military. Bases were closed because they were unwelcome, or driven out. The people are unfriendly or even hostile to service members, and that the Bay Area in general is, broadly speaking, anti-military.

These are seldom borne out by actual experiences, it’s more of a broad impression in the military culture. The Bay Area doesn’t like you.

As a lifelong resident of San Francisco, I’ve found an occasional disdain toward the military. For the most part the disdain is reserved for the military as an arm of government, or as an institution. People hate the noise of the Blue Angels, or the wars and the military-industrial complex. But it stops there. It’s very rare that, even from behind the curtain of online anonymity, someone expresses anything negative for those in uniform. Sure it happens, but it happens everywhere and not just in an “anti-military” community.

It’s not that people don’t like the military. The military is just not a part of Bay Area society and culture. To residents, the military is one of those arms of government that operates in the background that nobody really pays attention to, like the Bureau of Land Management except if it had guns and nuclear weapons. People don’t pay attention to it because it has no impact on their lives.

The military never comes up in conversation. The wars never come up, because for better or for worse, they don’t affect anyone. The biggest exposure most people have in the Bay Area to the military is the flyover at the beginning of ball games.

The military is simply not “around.” The bases are gone. You don’t run into soldiers pumping their gas at the gas station, shopping at the supermarket or renewing their driver’s license at the DMV. There’s no opportunity to share a quiet moment together, bonding in admiration for a gigantic TV on a cruise ship.

Absent such connections, a group can become defined by stereotypes, rumor and bad press.

Crowds waiting to board USS Bonhomme Richard. Flickr user Esme_Vos

Not just minding, but bridging the gap

The military-civilian divide is a national problem, and how it affects the San Francisco Bay Area is a small, regional part of the problem. But it is fixable, and Fleet Week is part of fixing it.

As someone who has lived in San Francisco his entire life and knows the people, Fleet Week is invaluable in bridging the divide. People may not tour the ships and they might complain about the noise, but it gets them talking and thinking about the role of the military in today’s society, and their own attitudes towards it.

The current civilian military divide in this country is unhealthy for everyone, and it is something I find troubling. Civilians need the opportunity to engage with the military so that even if they dislike it — or the wars it fights — they will at least have a realistic understanding of it.

There’s a similar phenomenon happening within the military. Being sheltered from the civilian world isn’t healthy, and troops need to realize that while policies may divide us, the vast majority of the American people regardless of region support the members of the armed services.

That’s where Fleet Week comes in. It’s an opportunity for the military to engage the Bay Area and show local communities what it can do — lately, show up in the aftermath of a humanitarian disaster (such as an earthquake) and engage in relief efforts. It’s also an opportunity for people in the Bay Area to compare their perceptions to the reality of the military.

Any opportunity then for introducing the two sides to each other is an important one, and not something to be canceled because of budget cuts. Fleet Week should have been preserved this year, even with the emergency spending cuts demanded by the federal budget sequestration. It doesn’t matter how many ships the Navy gets, or how much operations, maintenance and training is preserved, if the American people don’t care that it happens at all.

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