Overhead, jet fighters streaked through a cloudless sky -- steel-gray bodies glinting in the sun, engines booming reminders of U.S. military might.
But on the ground yesterday at the annual air show at Andrews Air Force Base, the talk was of U.S. troops under siege, not just from insurgents in Iraq but from criticism at home about the course of the occupation and the abuse of Iraqis detained at Abu Ghraib prison.
"It's hard to watch the news now because it's all negative, negative, negative," said Judith Anderson, 43, a secretary from Oxon Hill who was following the action from a red-white-and-blue lawn chair.
"In a time of war," she said, "people don't need to hear so much negative -- and there's more good than bad, so we need to focus on that." Her husband, Kenneth Anderson, 41, an electrical engineer who held a giant red-and-blue umbrella to shield her from the sun, nodded vigorously in agreement.
Technically, this was not a military crowd. The show -- known formally as the Joint Service Open House and presented to the public free of charge on the Maryland base this weekend -- represents an effort to reach out to civilians.
"Our mission . . . is to show the American people the teamwork, the precision and the dedication . . . of all the military services," said Marine Maj. Len Anderson, who pilots one of the F/A-18 Hornets in the Navy's Blue Angels flying team. "We want the people to see what we are doing and make them proud." Maj. Anderson is not related to the Andersons of Oxon Hill.
Many of the 200,000 visitors craning their necks to watch the aerial gymnastics or scrambling aboard the dozens of aircraft displayed on the tarmac had family and friends in the armed forces or had served themselves. But even those without a military connection spoke of feeling a responsibility to show their support for troops deployed overseas.
Watching planes recently back from Iraq fly overhead "makes me feel much closer to what's going on there," said Debbie Reed, 46, an administrative assistant who makes the trip from Roanoke every year to see the show with her husband, Guy, 48. "I'm thinking, 'I'm here enjoying this, but those guys are not enjoying themselves. They're over there fighting for us so we can be here today.' "
Like many in the crowd yesterday, the Reeds said they strongly disapproved of the prisoner abuses shown in photographs from Abu Ghraib.
"The guys who did that should be dealt with. Nobody should be doing this stuff," said Guy Reed, a commercial air-conditioning and heating technician.
Still, Reed said, "I think the military as a whole should not be punished for the actions of a few individuals."
Not everyone saw it that way. Brian Fox, 38, a former flight engineer with the Army who now works for the U.S. Capitol Police, said that "higher-ups" must have or should have known about the abuses.. Fox said he worried that prison guards were now being court-martialed while the commanders who should have trained and supervised them "only got a slap on the hand."
Some questioned whether the prisoners' treatment was as serious as it has been portrayed. "If you have a lot of hostility between two sides, people are going to take it out on prisoners," said Kerri Pepin, 34, of Ashburn, who came with her husband, father-in-law and two children. "It happens on both sides and it happens in every war. That doesn't make it right. But it shouldn't be blown out of proportion."
Kenneth Anderson suggested that rather than a case of privates gone amok, the guards at Abu Ghraib probably were following reasonable orders from above. And he contrasted the treatment of the prisoners with that of Nicholas Berg, the young American who was recently beheaded in Iraq.
The prisoners "will recover," Kenneth Anderson said. "But you can't recover from getting your head cut off."
While everyone interviewed yesterday supported the invasion of Iraq, several expressed doubts about the current course of the conflict.
"We needed to go -- pardon my language -- kick some butt after 9-11," Pepin said. "But I can't believe we're still there. . . . We're losing too many guys, we've gotten in too deep, and I honestly don't know how we end it."
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.