02 April 2011


Derek Robinson's book Goshawk Squadron offers a vision of the air war over Flanders that will never let you hear the names Eddie Rickenbacker and Manfred von Richthofen the same way again.  Taking place over about two months, between 18 January and about 23 March 1918, the novel is framed by the character of the Old Man, Stanley Woolley: "At twenty-three he was young for a major and old for a pilot."  Having returned from three weeks' furlough, Woolley watches Goshawk Squadron try to land in the pasture that is their new base.  He has lost too many fliers to the collision between boyish romanticism and war, and can no longer remember the names of either the dead or their replacements, except for the earliest.  "After the first death,/ There is no other:"
     [Woolley said] "That only leaves the old sweats, then.  Church, Dangerfield, Mackenzie, and Killion."...
     "Not Mackenzie," Woodruffe said, quite clearly.
     Woolley let his head drop... "Did I say Mackenzie?" he asked.
     "We have no Mackenzie flying with us.  The other [new] pilot is Kimberley.  Not Mackenzie."
     "Not Mackenzie," Woolley murmured... "Certainly not Mackenzie.  Never Mackenzie.  Never."  He turned and rammed his swagger-stick into the heart of the brazier and set off at a run.  Halfway across the field he leaped high, took off his cap, and hurled it spinning from him.  "Never!" he shouted.  "Never!"  All around the perimeter faces turned to look.
     "Why did he go home, Woody?" Dickinson asked.  "Was it really family trouble?"
     "Nobody knows.  I think probably the quacks made him go... That's only my guess, but I think they gave him a choice.  Either three weeks' rest, or grounded for good."

Himself brutalized, Woolley brutalizes his men, trying to shock them into becoming murderers rather than 'knights of the air.'  "As long as you are in this shoddy squadron, there are certain words you will not use.  Here they are.  Fair, sporting, honourable, decent, gentlemanly... Those are bad words," he said.  "Bad, murdering words.  Don't even think them."  The squadron's SE5a biplanes are neither the fastest nor the most maneuverable of planes, but they have the sovereign virtue of being 'unwobbly' gun-platforms during combat.  According to Woolley, the squadron's purpose-- and the only way to survive a senseless war-- is not to outfly the Germans, but rather to ambush them and shoot them in the back.

One of the replacement airmen, Gabriel, is a tightly controlled Baptist slum missionary who has lost his faith.  His inaugural flight with the squadron enrages Woolley: "You piss-proud ponce," Woolley said.  "You drive that miserable sodding aeroplane around as if you're mowing the bleeding lawn."  In one of his typical pedagogic maneuvers, Woolley knocks him to the ground and kicks him over and over until Gabriel finally counter-attacks...

Woolley, on his hands and knees was watching him, looking into his eyes, searching.  Gabriel stared back and hated him.  Their breath gasped harshly in the cold air.  "Did you keep a cool head then, lawnmower?" Woolley panted.  "Were you in bloody control of yourself then?  That's what you've got to do up there.  Turn into a bloody assassin!  Kill!  Understand, you bastard Boy Scout?  Kill.  Only a maniac would do this job, and you're too sane by half.  You madden up, lawnmower, before some madman beats you to it, or I'll kill you myself.  Understand?  Understand?"

Gabriel does not mix with the others: while they make a shambles of a local tavern, he breaks into a church and plays the organ for hours.  Over the slow winter months, Gabriel becomes skillful, bloody-minded, further alienated.  The deaths mount up, the survivors close up into themselves, and because the others are so used to his Biblical quotations, no one notices that Gabriel has begun to speak entirely in quotes from the maledictions of Isaiah:

     Gabriel put down his tea.  "For the indignation of the lord is upon all nations," he announced, "and his fury upon all their armies: he hath utterly destroyed them, he hath delivered them to their slaughter."  He glanced around to make sure they understood.  "Their slain also shall be cast out, and their stink shall come out of their carcasses, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood."  He snapped his fingers to indicate the thoroughness of the destruction.
     "Good," Woolley said.  "I'm glad somebody's enjoying his war."

The first Ludendorff Offensive of 21 March 1918 breaks the British line: the Germans advance five miles in the first day, in a war where for years major advances were measured in hundreds of yards.  The squadron are hurled into the counter-offensive.

     Gabriel was waiting by his SE when Rogers and Killion came out.  He watched them trail over to their machines, and on an impulse he hurried across.  His long stride, his high shoulders, his bony forehead, his intent expression: Gabriel meant business.  "Oh Christ," Rogers muttered.
     Gabriel raised an arm... "For it is the day of the Lord's vengeance," he called... "For behold, the Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind--"
   "Go to hell!" Rogers shouted... [He] spat, and the breeze carried some of his spittle on to Gabriel's sleeve.
     Gabriel looked down at it, and looked up at Rogers.  He was pale, and he frowned fiercely. "Therefore will I number you to the sword," he shouted.  "And ye shall bow down to the slaughter: because when I called, ye did not answer; when I spake--"

Gabriel's brittle control has finally shattered: he sees it as his charge to inaugurate the Day of Judgment.  Once in the air, rather than attacking the advancing Germans, he strafes the fleeing British (the word 'strafe' comes from the German 'strafen'-- 'to punish'):

     [Killion said] "... I mean, I suppose we both thought he'd made a mistake... [but] he knew.  We saw him reload, he was going to go back down... So Rogers had a go at him, you know... tried to force him to land.  But then he tried to kill Rogers, and finally they had the devil of a fight."
    "And?"  Woolley said.
    "Rogers shot him down.  Only it wasn't like that.  Gabriel's plane came to pieces, it just fell apart.  I saw him fall, I saw it all happen.  Everything."
     "Where's Rogers now?"
     "Crashed," Killion said.  "I think he took a bullet and passed out.  He must be dead, too."

Gabriel's way out is no different, really, from that of Dylan Klebold or Charles Whitman (a former Marine) or any other sudden mass killer.  Strictly defined, these are the constituents of trauma: first, having to live, and kill, in an intolerably insane and violent world; second, the failure of any inner schema to extract bearable meaning out of that inescapable life: thus, the End of the Future; and finally, being repudiated by the only comrades he can hope for.  Exiled from the human world, what is there left to become but a murderous archangel, not the trumpeter but the One who falls?

Gabriel's is just one story among many.  Of the twelve airmen Woolley had watched land their planes two months earlier, only three are left alive when the book ends.  Yet this bleakly funny, harrowing book has space in it for love too, dangerous as it is.  And the last paragraph will take your breath away.