Garth Ennis’s Knights of the Sky, Part Two: Condors: “Gentlemen: I hate you all.”

Posted by on January 20th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One.

“Condors,” a selection from the second volume of Garth Ennis’s War Stories, finds four combatants — two from each side — hiding in a crater during intensive shelling.  The setting is the battle of Ebro, toward the end of the Spanish Civil War. As the four —  a German pilot, an Irish fascist, an English Socialist, and a Spanish Republican — are stuck together, unarmed, for hours, they each tell their stories and, naturally enough, argue about the war of which they are a part.

(It’s a pity I missed this story when I wrote my Spanish Civil War essay; but as one of the men in the story is a downed pilot, and another recounts an aerial bombing, I feel justified including it here.)

The German speaks first.  He is “not interested in politics” and “never, ever, ever wanted to be a solider.”  But he is naive about the Nazis and enthusiastic about flying.  He has yet to learn the lessons that hard experience taught the Phantom Eagle:

“It is a good way to go to war,” he says.  “The best way, I think.  A duel between warriors, decided by skill and daring.  It is war fought cleanly, with respect for an opponent. . .  with mercy. . .  with decency. . .  and with honor.”

Apparently he adheres to this code to the end.  The epilogue tells us that during World War II, “Joachim Reinhert. . .  scored two hundred and seventeen kills. . .  and even on the brutal Eastern front he was renowned for his decency and compassion toward downed opponents.”  His enemy, however, played by different rules:  “A week before the end of the war, outnumbered and exhausted, he was shot down and machine-gunned under his parachute by Soviet fighters.”

The Socialist, a bespectacled Englishman, speaks next.  He says predictable things about the Depression, and labour, and Marx, but he also makes an interesting observation about the life of the soldier:

It seems to me it’s not a million miles away from socialism.  Yes, you take orders, but it’s for the common good.  If someone doesn’t understand his job, you take the time to teach him.  You want to know you can rely on him like he relies on you.  If a bloke gets hurt, you help him.  You don’t just leave him lying there.  And you share what you’ve got. You take care of your comrades.  Because if you don’t, it’s all a waste and the whole thing falls apart.  It’s as if in the middle of all this hell, we finally got it right.

The fascist, likewise, sees his own politics reflected in combat:

“Only by iron will and utter ruthlessness will victory be achieved.  And someone has to lead: The strongest, the most determined —  the man who can do whatever it takes.  And the weak — the weak are completely without value. . . .  War is fascism.”

In contrast, the Spaniard’s story begins simply, “I was at Guernica.”

Carlos Ezquerra’s inks and Moose Baumann’s colors show the city as it is systematically destroyed.  The first frame displays a peaceful town square, a church in the mid-ground, a single plane approaching.  On the next page, the sky is crowded with aircraft and falling bombs. Those who can, flee; those remaining are consumed by flames.  The fire reaches into the sky; it seems, surreally, to scream.  The survivors run across the fields surrounding the town; but fighter planes circle, machine guns firing.  The people and their cattle are slaughtered together.  “Then — and only then — did the main attack begin.”  German bombers are thick in the sky.  Soon the city is nothing but fire and rubble.  Bodies are everywhere — men, women, children; some crushed, some burned, some screaming, barely alive.  The sky is red with fire, the air black with smoke.  It looks like hell.

After recounting the events of that day, the Spaniard ends with a note of resignation:

I joined the Republicans after Guernica.  To stop it happening again, to seek revenge on those who did it — you know the kind of thing.  Madness, of course.  As if fighting in a war could prevent more atrocity.  As if I could find the pilots who were there that day, never mind kill them.  Their deaths will happen far from here.  Randomly, completely unconnected.  All I have seen since is pointless bloodshed. . . .  No good will come of it.

Suddenly he turns to his companions:  “Gentlemen: I hate you all.”

He is Spanish, and for him the war is personal.  The others are all idealists, though their ideals are very different.  Two of them idealize politics, one of them idealizes flight — and all three idealize war.  He compares them to “the  great vultures that hover over the battlefield, each taking what you want from the carnage, using it in whatever way suits you.”  And he concludes:  “God forgive me, I do not know that I am any different.”

Images ©2003 Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra

Next: Britannia Rules the Stars!

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