People sometimes wonder about my old military job. They ask what it was like looking at pictures from all those satellites buzzing overhead, peeking into everyone's national back yards.
I finally sat down to put it on paper, to share with everyone the wondrous glimpse of humanity I was privileged to have ... a look at this big wide world under the sky.
I'll start with one of Earth's most beautiful vistas, Afghanistan.
Why beautiful? Because, from space you see the full effect of those perpetual desert winds. Across the broad hilly landscape west of the capitol city, wind erosion has exposed all the layers of sedimentary rock. The scene resembles a jawbreaker candy after a child has reduced it to a bulbous rainbow, but this rainbow goes on for a hundred miles.
Libya is a special treat for the architecturally inclined, because all through the capitol they've refurbished with modern architecture. Some European-schooled architects looking for a free hand saw their visions poured in concrete there. And I suspect the same happened for one bored architect ... a huge public building looks exactly like a paper plane, wings, folds and all.
Saudi Arabia was a joy to look at once they'd invested billions modernizing. The land is carpeted in grand highways, the Royal airports are laced with intricate mosaic tiles decorating parking aprons, magnificent mosques (never did find a harem though).
Kuwait was that way too before Iraq shot it to pieces, but on a much smaller scale. I have a buddy who walked through the shattered Kuwaiti capitol after its liberation; so much destruction, such a shame.
In my job you could spend all day browsing through photos of Egypt. Those Hollywood movies give you a good idea of crowding in cities along the Nile, cities so densely packed I had to walk my eyes through crooked little streets, matching the photo to the map the way police experts match fingerprints. It was tedious work but critically necessary because I wasn't about to become infamous as the spy who pointed a bomb at the wrong address (if you know what I mean).
Cairo itself boasts tremendous water towers, huge square blockish things rising like giants above the cityscape, millions of gallons of water in their bellies. They looked far too vulnerable to an enemy for my military tastes.
Not at all vulnerable looking, and quite magnificent, were the pyramids.
Western European landscapes all seem to be draped in lush forest and tree sheltered roads, towns speckle the hillsides ... signs of activity are everywhere with cute little cars and odd-looking trucks zipping about, houses being built for newlyweds, marketplaces.
Looking at Europe one couldn't help noticing how busy they were, and I'd think how America must look much the same from this vantage point. I often found myself wondering if I'd like to live in those idyllic scenes, and consult the data about their weather and economy, their lifestyles and population. Then it would be time to move on and I'd have to recommend the best weapons to destroy the town (if need be). Not a career for the faint-hearted.
Don't get the wrong idea. My job wasn't just about destructive intent! We look at every place pretty much, as all the world's nations do. The reason everyone keeps tabs on so many places is to predict where and how to apply the minimum force to contain or prevent trouble around the world. Our success rate may vary but we keep on trying.
I do recall a particularly rewarding day.
The event was Grenada and someone had misidentified two facilities. With Marine aircraft just hours away from blasting them we were asked for a second opinion, and it quickly became apparent the bombs were targeted not for a military storage area and headquarters but a graveyard and elementary school! I'd hate to admit how easily such mistakes can happen, but I'm very glad to report this time we stopped it. After all, I have kids too.
Actually the most exciting moment for me wasn't finding a new tank or missile but the day I saw a lady walking her kids in a city park. Why? Because it was unequivocally the first time I knew someone's gender from a satellite shot. Yes you hear a lot of stories about us reading license plates, but in those days just telling a skirt from a pair of pants was a big deal.
I do love history, and was thrilled to stumble across some small uncharted ruins in the Mid-East far off the beaten path. We couldn't very well inform the nation's embassy because their very next revelation would be the realization that we were peeking at one of their nearby military installations. They'll just have to find the ruins for themselves some day.
Sadly, I can't forget Jonestown. Even from outer space those twisted black shapes were sinister and unmistakable ... bodies ... bodies just littering the ground. It was hard to imagine they were all once living hopeful people, but their quest for a new spiritual identity ended as a mere scratch mark on a piece of scrap paper. Cults are not one of life's better answers.
And I remember being the last person to ever see six people alive. They were national police (Colombian I think) and in the photos our planes imaged their patrol approaching a rebel camp single-file through an open field. A collateral report later that day told us they had all died in a firefight ten minutes after our photos were taken. They gave their all, just as we would.
On a happier note we sometimes imaged resort cities, and like any lusty fellows immediately scanned the beaches (all men instinctively know the best view of cleavage is from above). Of course image quality being what it was then we were always disappointed, but that never stopped us from looking!
Resort spots were always packed with tourists busily buying souvenirs and getting tans, giving no thought to the enormous eye in space above them.
I loved my job. Every day was filled with exotic sights: ships at sea, the Eiffel Tower, farm animals grazing lazily ... there was an endless parade of visions both good and bad. I was a world traveled tourist without ever leaving my chair.
But all good things come to an end, as must this reflection on my life that was. I admit, with some embarrassment I don't have an explosive climax for this little article, unless you allow me to mention Mt. Saint Helen's. From the ground it was surely an awe-inspiring eruption, but I confess from the quiet reaches of the darkened Heavens, it was just a momentary highlight.
Like everything else in life, it all depends on your perspective.