The War Lover by John Hersey
Written in 1959, The War Lover is one of the almost-forgotten great novels about World War II. Perhaps the thing that hurt the book’s reputation over the years is the rather poorly received 1962 movie very loosely based on the book—even though it starred Steve McQueen. Despite the movie, it is a book that deserves to be better remembered.
Along with 12 O’Clock High and Command Decision, The War Lover rounds out a trilogy of novels about America’s daylight bombing campaign in Europe. While 12 O’Clock High focuses on the command problems of a bombardment group, Command Decision deals with the higher-level leadership problems of a bombardment division. The War Lover is about a single B-17 crew, as the airmen struggle to survive their 25 missions. But this is not the stereotypical “band of brothers” crew. All four officers and six sergeants are portrayed as very distinct individuals, each with his own unique foibles, fears and personal demons. They only coalesce once they are in the air, purely as a matter of survival. Back on the ground they form a complex set of friendships, rivalries and antagonisms.
The dominating conflict is between the pilot and his copilot. The pilot, a major, has the reputation of being the hotshot in the group. But as the book’s title implies, he is also a war lover who actually thrives on the adrenaline rush of death and destruction. The copilot, a second lieutenant, is a competent flier, but he is cautious and hates killing people. Thus he is continually overshadowed by his seemingly larger-than-life pilot, who never misses an opportunity to ridicule him. But it’s all a façade. As they continue to rack up missions, the crew slowly realizes that the copilot is the safer pair of hands. Finally, on their 24th mission, the infamous 1943 Schweinfurt Raid, the pilot breaks down into a catatonic state, and the copilot is forced to take over. The bomber gets badly shot up, and barely manages to get back far enough to ditch in the English Channel. Thanks to the copilot, six of the crew members survive. The hotshot pilot is not one of them.
One of the most remarkable things about this book is its level of technical and tactical detail. Without gumming up the narrative, the crew’s dialogue during missions covers the many intricacies of flying a B-17, enemy fighter and flak artillery tactics, the defensive tactics of individual gunners, and squadron and group defensive measures. Nothing in Hersey’s biography indicates that he had personal experience in such matters, but he certainly did his homework. The result is a comprehensive compilation of the human, tactical and technical elements of America’s bomber war.