The ship museum opened in San Diego in 2004, three years after the film Pearl Harbor came out, after the peak of 1990s-era nostalgia for the Second World War (sorry, “WWII”) had peaked. Nine years later the Midway’s onboard holographic “Battle of Midway” theater was built.
But the shrunken shuffling white men in their unit baseball caps who were sent out on ships to battle the Japanese come to see the Midway museum. Their middle-aged children and youthful grandchildren often wear aviator-style sunglasses as they wait for a tour. The opaque lenses in their wrap-around molded plastic are sold alongside beach towels at every kiosk in the tourist-trap a five-minute drive away. The white aviator-wearing tourists nod under the marine layered sky as guides intone about how the younger generations must be educated about the sacrifices made for the noble effort. Then they file through the exhibit decks, looking at the restored F4F Wildcat fighter and the rest of an interactive display on the Battle of Midway. The museum does have a display dedicated to “Operation Frequent Wind”, the rescue of Vietnamese as Saigon fell in 1975.
Five miles away, an elite sailor will face court-martial this month for a crime committed two years ago in a war in a desert. Like most sailors, even the SEALs, Special Warfare Operator Edward “Eddie” Gallagher is not from San Diego. The city is a training base and a port of call, and even many civilians are transplants. Use a ride-sharing app to take that five-mile trip along San Diego Bay, and the driver may well be from any number of other US states or countries of origin, including Iraq. Gallagher began his military career in that country as a Navy medic with a Marine combat unit. Five years after his enlistment, he became a SEAL. He deployed to Afghanistan seven times prior to being sent back to Iraq in 2017. He and his unit were stationed in Mosul in May when Iraqi forces brought them a teenaged ISIS fighter who had been wounded in an airstrike. The unit’s medics began to treat the youth, and at that point, naval investigators allege, the special warfare operator came up and stabbed him with a homemade knife. The other platoon members then allegedly posed with Gallagher, who held the teenager’s severed head in one hand and his knife in the other. The investigation opened in April of 2018, and Gallagher was arrested on September 11, 2018, at Camp Pendleton, the Marine base about twenty miles up the coast, after allegedly trying to intimidate witnesses.
The Persian Gulf War was Camp Pendleton’s coming out party; the conflict served as USS Midway’s final action as a working warship. Refugees from that war — Kurds and Chaldean Catholics — were resettled in the arid valleys of the San Diego suburb El Cajon. English and Arabic signage hangs above the cream-colored stucco strip malls where refugee-run small businesses offer various services to the community. The Chaldean Catholic St. Peter’s Cathedral stands over the community on Jamacha Way. It had been built in 1983, and so was able to form the core of the community that grew in the 190s and 2000s. Following the Syriac liturgical rite and using the Syriac language, it preserves traditions that Iraqi Christians have observed for over a millennium and a half.
The end of the Cold War led to base closures that affected San Diego, as well as less money for military contractors – the white male workers in those industries were put out of work, and many responded by partially reversing the migration their ancestors had made from the Midwest or the Dust Bowl. After putting Mayor Pete Wilson in the governor’s mansion, they went inland.
Now it appears many of them form the core of the #FREEEDDIE group on Facebook. The effort, led by Gallagher’s wife Amy, has sought to turn the SEAL’s case into a cause celebre for this era in which a sitting president fantasies about how US troops missed an opportunity to commit additional war crimes one hundred years ago in the Philippines, in the first counter-insurgency war the US fought in Asia. A San Diego-area Republican congressman, Rep. Duncan Hunter, has come to Gallagher’s defense on similar grounds, boasting of his own Iraq War exploits along the way. He has involved himself in the course of the case more directly, as well, despite not actually representing the district where the trial will take place, and being under federal indictment for campaign finance violations.
The city still thinks of itself as a navy town. But the region is now known for the tech and biotech coming out of the UC San Diego campus and the Salk Institute in La Jolla to such an extent that the sports stadium bears the name of one major tech company, Qualcomm. When people in the rest of the US are asked what they associate with San Diego, they are now as likely to think of the Comic-Con held annually downtown as the Navy. The Gallagher court-martial, now scheduled to start June 10, may shift that again.