I finished Derek Robinson’s Goshawk Squadron on October 26, 2010.
Okay, maybe I do like war novels. I didn’t think I did, but this is the second war novel on the Booker list I’ve liked and I can name a handful of others as well. Maybe it’s particular kinds of war novels I don’t like—with lots of strategies and statistics and descriptions of weapons. Or maybe it’s just war movies I don’t like. I’ll have to ponder this.
But Goshawk Squadron was a terrific read, a very involving story about an English squadron flying near the front in WWI France. The novel begins on January 15, 1918, with the arrival of new pilots who will be undergoing flight training before moving quickly to missions against German fighters. While we get to know many of the pilots in the course of the novel, the focus is really on Major Woolley, who at twenty-three is the squadron’s seasoned leader, the “old man.” Woolley is portrayed as a gifted pilot and as something of an animal. His goal is to train his squadron to be as brutal as he is in order to survive. Throughout the novel, idealistic recruits arrive with visions of wartime valor and courage that Woolley sets about squashing. He forbids talk of fairness, calling it a dirty word.
This attitude infects the squadron and the novel. Many pilots die in the course of the book—old hands, new recruits, characters we barely know, those we come to know well. Suddenly they’re gone, their deaths barely mentioned once they’ve become known. No emotion surrounds them; no mourning takes place. The dead pilots’ personal effects are sold or simply taken. Further, in a set piece midway through, several men from the squadron enjoy a night of debauchery at a French restaurant that ends with the restaurant trashed and its owner dead. The men barely give it a second thought, treating the investigation that follows as little more than a nuisance.
We may recoil at this callous behavior, But Robinson wants us to see it in the context of war and to see that Woolley really does have the best interests of his pilots at heart, despite his ruthless methods. The only pilot who seems to concern Woolley, someone called MacKenzie about whom he asks periodically, is clearly from his past. We find out nothing about MacKenzie but his name. Still, we can see that he haunts Woolley, and we imagine that his fate informs Woolley’s brutal training regimen.
Ethics and emotions—humanity itself--, according to Woolley, will get these pilots killed. And it does with greater and greater frequency when higher-ups insist that Woolley send men into battle that he hasn’t had time to train properly. As Allied ground troops are massacred in the trenches and more and more Allied planes go down, necessitating the use of more and greener pilots, emotion, ethics, and even sanity all give way. The mission becomes an exercise in absurdity; the war a senseless slaughter.
While this message comes through loud and clear, the book has no real plot. Robinson builds this story by a series of disconnected scenes. What we see here is what happens day to day, with no transitions. Men fly, drink, die, and other men take their places. Robinson captures the experience of war as well as the black camaraderie of the squadron and their growing sense of futility. Heartless by necessity, Woolley becomes a figure of great pathos--truly an old man at twenty-three--who would forsake his brutal wisdom in the end if he could.