During WWII 110,000 men were trained by Bomber Command in England's RAF. Of them, 50,000 were killed and 15,000 suffered serious casualties. These are the men that that Daniel Swift writes about in Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot's War. Swift visits the sites of former military bases where the men were trained, attends reunions and speaks to veterans. He is hoping to understand just what it was like to be part of such a dangerous and dangerously destructive group. He also hopes to find out more about his own grandfather who was killed in action as part of a Lancaster crew in 1943.
And then, there is also the poetry.
Of the men in his grandfather's crew, only his body was recovered, after it washed ashore and was later buried in what turns out to be a grave basically impossible to find. (Some of the book is about visiting cemeteries.) The author's father was only 3 when the crash happened and seeks his own emotional closure; they both wish they knew more about the lost airmen and they both discover, eventually, that what they have is mostly all they will ever get.
But learning about the war and the men who flew the bombers and reading what has been written by those in the bombers, goes a long way toward showing Swift what it was probably like for his grandfather. And all of this investigating also means that he learns a lot to share with readers. Here's a bit:
Bombing was to the Second World War what the trenches were to the First: a shocking and new form of warfare, wretched and unexpected and carried out in a terrible scale of loss. Just as the trenches produced the most remarkable poetry of the First World War, so too did the bombing campaigns foster a haunting set of poems during the Second. But this is not simple process, for they are not equivalent geographies. Bombing, if we take the whole of it, is always double. It was a kind of war conducted in the cities and the planes, shared between the bombers and the bombed, and so it asks a split reckoning, a thinking in two places. 'Children look up,' wrote Cecil Day Lewis: and think upon the bombers above.
I think we have gotten a bit blasé about war poetry; we are used to having our hearts torn, we expect it to be intense, we expect it to be serious. But what Swift discovers is that the poetry of bombing was too extreme for many--bombing itself was too extreme for poets at first (lots of quotes from Virginia Woolf and others in England who were at a loss as to how to write about the London bombings). As horrific as the trenches were, it was still warfare between soldiers. In the bombing campaigns of WWII we saw the first large scale fighting against civilians and that changed everything, even for poets.
Bomber County is not a breezy read; Swift gets a bit academic at times although not overly so. I would have loved this book in college; it fits perfectly in several courses I took about understanding war and considering the inner thoughts of the men who fought it. I especially liked that it was about aircraft crews because I think very little (comparatively) has been written about their war experiences and the many personal parts about Swift's grandfather (quotes from letters, etc.) were quite moving. It's poetry like this though, from Randall Jarrell, that stopped my reading in its tracks:
In bombers we named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school--
Till our lives wore out;
I could read those lines forever and they never get easier, which I suppose is the best thing that war poetry can do.