Garth Ennis’s Knights of the Sky, Part Six: Battler Britton and “Archangel”: “The whole truth is unthinkable.”

Posted by on January 26th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

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

In Battler Britton, as in Phantom Eagle, Ennis again revisits a Golden Age hero, though this one is a veteran pilot, not a novice.  And again, he plays upon the almost familial tension between British and American culture.  This time it’s in the North Africa desert during World War II, and Britton’s air squadron has been dispatched to a secret airstrip behind enemy lines.

The RAF had been in the game for years, but the Americans are new to it.  The first thing the Yanks do is ditch the patrol they’re supposed to be covering to strafe some targets that have already been destroyed.  And the first thing Britton does is knock out the American commander’s teeth.  But the plot proceeds along the lines of a buddy movie.  Each side learns to value what’s good about the other, and is made better in the process.

Here again, it’s the Americans who play the inexperienced fools, but in this case, it’s the English who supply the touch of idealism — though  they fully recognize its distance from reality.  After his unit’s first losses, the American commander worries,

“I have to write their folks.  What the hell am I s’posed to write?  ‘Dear Mr. an’ Mrs. Plowman, your boy came ten thousand miles from Oakland to die over an empty wasteland.  He died of lousy, stinkin’ bad luck in a stupid goddamn accident.  He died for nothin’.”

It’s the truth, and Ennis tells us it’s the truth.  But he also tells us that, sometimes, the truth is just not what’s needed.

“You write nothing of the kind,” Britton sensibly advises.  “You tell them what a magnificent contribution he made to the squadron.  How all your men looked up to him.  How he died in combat against the enemy. . . .  For Mr. and Mrs. Plowman — the whole truth is unthinkable.”

The truth, in other words, is insane.  The trick is to find a way to make the insanity bearable.

“Archangel,” the last installment in War Stories, Volume Two tells the tale of a novice pilot who draws one of the most crack-brained assignments in World War II.  Short on aircraft carriers, the Royal Navy began launching fighters off of rails attached to the bows of smaller ships.  The problem, of course, was that once the German bombers had been repelled, there was no way for the plane to return to the ship.  The pilot had to make for the nearest airstrip, or if he was low on fuel, bail out over the ocean.

As he learns the details, Jamie MacKenzie becomes increasingly convinced that his is a suicide mission.  The convoy he’s escorting is in the Arctic, where “the water’s so cold” that if you have to bail “you’ll be stone dead in less than a minute.”  Worse, the ship’s gunners are unaccustomed to air escort, so “They tend to fire at everything that flies.”

Gary Erskine’s art perfectly captures the hopeless absurdity of the situation.  The commanders and instructors appear ridiculous; Jamie’s depression and anxiety show on his face more clearly in every panel; and actual combat looks like terrifying chaos, the sky cluttered with planes and bombs and fire.

Nevertheless, when the time comes, Jamie becomes a hero almost despite himself.  He repels two waves of German bombers, and makes it to a Russian base.  The story is good, highlighting both the absurdity of war and the real possibility of heroism.  It functions as almost a kind of counterpoint to Catch-22.  “What we’re doing here’s so completely and utterly insane anyway,” one airman explains, “there’s absolutely no point worrying about it.”

Ennis is unwilling to praise war.  He depicts it resolutely as being dirty, ugly, cruel, and usually pointless.  Anyone who believes the propaganda, he seems to say, is at the very least a fool, and likely a moral coward, and perhaps a knowing accomplice in mass murder.

Yet he is equally unwilling to discount heroism, and the heroic virtues.  However evil or stupid the overall project, the people who actually fight nevertheless do sometimes display astonishing courage, and strength of will, and sometimes — in contrast to everything that surrounds them — sometimes, even decency.

The fact that war is evil and stupid does not change the fact that it took a war to stop the Nazis.  But by the same token, the fact that a war stopped the Nazis, does not in any way make war a thing to be celebrated.  The real heroism of those who fight shows this as well as anything else.  For the war does not care about them, or their virtues.  The war does not love them while they live, or mourn them when they die.

Whether victorious or defeated, whether the cause is just, or criminal, or merely confused, no matter what their intentions or values, these soldiers and the virtues they represent are wasted.  Surely there is some better use for courage, and determination, and self-sacrifice.  And when we invest the best elements of our character, or of our society, in the deliberate widespread killing of strangers, the result may or may not be heroic, but it is always tragic.

Top image: drawn by Colin Wilson. ©2006 DC Comics

Bottom image: drawn by Gary Erskine. ©2003 Garth Ennis & Gary Erskine

Comics Cited in this Series

Battler Britton
written by Garth Ennis
art by Colin Wilson
DC Comics, 2007

Battlefields: The Night Witches
written by Garth Ennis
art by Russ Braun
Dynamite Entertainment, 2009

Dan Dare Omnibus
written by Garth Ennis
art by Gary Erskine
Dynamite Entertainment, 2009

Hellblazer, #71, “Finest Hour”
written by Garth Ennis
art by Steve Dillon
DC Comics, 1993

War is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle
written by Garth Ennis
art by Howard Chaykin
Marvel Comics, 2008

War Stories, Vol. 2
written by Garth Ennis
various artists
DC Comics, 2006

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