Garth Ennis’s Knights of the Sky, Part Five: J for Jenny, The Night Witches, and more Phantom Eagle: “I have made my choice.”

Posted by on January 25th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Previously: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four.

In his war stories, Garth Ennis has repeatedly put enemies in dialogue, face to face; or set allies against each other, in debate.  He has returned, almost obsessively, to questions of duty  and compassion, and to the brutal, arbitrary nature of modern warfare.  It is to his credit that his heroes often arrive at very different conclusions:

The second volume of War Stories begins with “J for Jenny” (perfectly illustrated by David Lloyd).  The story follows a British bomber crew during World War II.  They alternate between nighttime sorties and arguing the ethics of their mission.  The pilot is eager to take revenge on the Germans for the Blitz:  “We will smash your cities to the ground.  And we will burn your children in their beds.  We will pay you back a thousandfold.”  The flight engineer, on the other hand, finds the job unconscionable:  “Listen: Just because I object to being turned into a war criminal doesn’t mean I don’t want to fight the enemy. . . .  If anyone can tell me what good slaughtering civilians does us, I’d dearly like to know. . . . If we didn’t cave in three years ago [during the Blitz], why should the same thing work on them?”  The other three crew members are mostly just grateful if they return from the mission alive.

©2003 Garth Ennis & David Lloyd

Things take an unexpected turn on one run when the plane is hit:  It’s the bellicose pilot who makes every effort to bring it down away from the city below them, and it’s the scrupulous engineer who, inadvertently, causes it to crash in the populated area.

Similar controversies arose during World War I, among the pilots in The Phantom Eagle:

“This true what I hear about mutiny in the French army?” our American hero asks.

“Don’t know if mutiny’s really the word,” his friend Rox says.  “They’re just. . .  not obeying orders to attack.  They’ve decided their generals don’t have their best interests at heart. . . .”

In the history of the First World War, this was a real problem — at least from the generals’ perspective.  Peace kept breaking out.  One side would quit firing, and then the other.  Unofficial truces would hold, against all orders, sometimes for weeks.

The alternative, as Rox argues, was almost a kind of suicide:  “Look at the British:  We fight on even after our generals have proved themselves incompetent.”

By way of explanation, he describes a charge into No Man’s Land:  Wave after wave of young men rush head-on into machine gun fire.  Thousands die in an afternoon, and neither side advances.  “And it’ll continue to happen, too, because High Command can’t come up with anything more original.”

Much later Kauffman sees this directly, and so do we.  In a long panel, spread across two pages, we see scrawny, clumsy British soldiers racing toward us, two crooked lines of barbed wire in the foreground.  Below, we see the Germans in their trench, stern and determined-looking.  The next three panels give a machine gunner’s view of the action.  The gun is in the foreground, a belt of bullets feeding into it, a bright flash at the barrel.  Anonymous outlines of boys — enemies — fall before the gun in the background.  They finally come into view in the third panel. They’re limp and bloody, lying in a heap.  A trickle of smoke rises from the gun barrel.

The next page offers a broader view.  Below a crisp blue sky, there is a wasteland.  The ground is covered in bodies.  They lie face-down, their uniforms a muddy brown specked with red, like rust.

Art by Howard Chaykin. ©2008 Marvel Characters, Inc.

Night Witches explores same theme — decency in the midst of war — from a very different angle.  It follows an individual on each side of the conflict (this time, World War II).  One is a German conscript, the other a Russian pilot.  His army is invading her country; her squadron bombs his unit every night.  In the course of the weeks-long engagement — the bombings, the flak, reprisals against civilians — each of these two antagonists has to face the brutality and irrationality of combat.

In the end they meet.  Nadia’s plane has been shot down, and Kurt decides to aid her escape.  He refuses to turn her over to be raped and tortured and killed:  “We are either beasts or human beings,” he thinks, “and though they put me up against a wall and shoot me, I have made my choice. . . .  I will remain myself.”

It’s a good choice, but it costs him his life.

Nadia chooses differently.  She stabs him when his back is turned, takes his gun, and wipes out his squad.

It’s a sad ending, sadder for her than him.  They each, in different ways, sacrifice themselves.  It’s hard to say that either decision is wrong, but surely they each deserve something better.

Next:  Insanity and Tragedy

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