Samuel Hynes. The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014. 336 pp. $26.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-374-27800-7.
Reviewed by Laurence M. Burke (Carnegie Mellon)
Published on H-War (August, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
The centennial of the First World War seems to have brought little popular interest in the conflict in the United States. Perhaps this is because the centennial of the United States’ participation in the war will not happen until 2017, or perhaps it is because the American public knows much less about WWI. There has been, however, a slow but steady production of books about the war for the past several years. A recent addition to the topic is Samuel Hynes’s latest book, The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War. In it, Hynes looks at the most romanticized aspect of the conflict: the war in the air. Specifically, the book is about the American experience of the war in the air. In some ways, The Unsubstantial Air is an attempt to do for the US aviators of WWI what Hynes did in his own memoir, Flights of Passage (1988), which described his experience of WWII as a Marine Corps aviator serving in the Pacific theater.
Hynes is a professor of literature, not history, and the book reflects that. There is no central argument, no historical analysis. Instead, The Unsubstantial Air synthesizes numerous diaries, letters, memoirs and other documents from US WWI aviators to achieve a sort of composite experience of what it was like to transition from civilian to military aviator during the war. The result is part John Keegan’s “The Face of Battle,” part cultural anthropology. He takes us inside the heads of these young men: what were their thoughts, their motivations, their fears, their hopes? Most especially, what was their experience of the First World War?
Hynes organizes his book thematically, following the order of someone wanting to become a military aviator, beginning with the process of reading about the war and being inspired to sign up for the aviation service once the United States enters the war. Next is the experience of ground school, then traveling to Europe, basic flight training, and advanced flight training (with separate chapters for the pursuit, observation, and bomber pilots). Hynes then addresses actual combat, with chapters for the three actions in which the US Army participated, before finishing with a chapter about the end of the war and its aftermath.
Hynes’s chapters on the advanced training by specialty tells us a little bit about the emergence of doctrine regarding the roles of pursuit, observation, and bombardment aviation during the war, but only a little. His three chapters on the different US battles are even thinner regarding the progress of the fighting: this book is about the aviators’ perception of those battles, which was often fleeting, fragmentary, and uninformed.
Still, Hynes’s synthesis achieves a completeness of the experience that few single-source narratives can achieve. Soldiers’ letters home convey one sense of the war, while diaries express another. A somewhat fuller experience emerges if both letters and diaries can be put together by an editor, or when the soldier writes a memoir, but there are still likely to be holes. By collecting multiple authors’ documents, Hynes is able to connect incidents and experience that individuals skip over or mention only in passing. The synthesis of multiple sources also accomplishes a sort of “thick description.” This is something occasionally accomplished by individuals, most often in their letters home, when they are attempting to explain something to their correspondents. By combining multiple voices, however, Hynes gives us thick description even where none exists in the original sources.
Hynes’s sources include a few US naval aviators, but these appear entirely within the training portion of the book, the exception being occasional quotes from naval aviator Kenneth MacLeish. MacLeish, as part of his training with the British, served for a time in a Royal Naval Air Service squadron (later, after amalgamation of the RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps, it became a Royal Air Force squadron) flying Sopwith Camels on the northern end of the western front. But Hynes never gets to describing the naval aviators’ war: flying hours of anti-submarine patrol off the coasts of France, Britain, Ireland, and Italy. On the one hand, this is understandable. There is only so much one can say about the monotony of flying ASW patrol. But that is no less the experience of war than some of the army aviators Hynes does write about, who are stuck in non-flying jobs, or who go on a patrol over the lines and never see an enemy plane. On the other hand, naval patrols over the North Sea, the English Channel, and the Adriatic Sea faced the possibility of aerial combat with enemy aircraft, just like the army’s observational squadrons. This sort of flying also carried its own dangers and dramas--for instance, being forced down at sea and waiting for hours, hoping that your plight will be known and you will be rescued soon. Hynes does not give us this aspect of the aviators’ war.
Hynes is primarily interested in the front-line flyer’s experience of the war. There are few citations from anyone higher than squadron commander. Hynes quotes some of Elmer Haslett’s combat flying experiences from Haslett’s memoir Luck on the Wing (1920), but the quotes are from a time when Haslett was merely a squadron operations officer, and nothing from his time as Aviation Operations officer for I Corps. The only senior officer identified as such is Billy Mitchell. Hynes is uncritical of Mitchell and the claims made of his importance to WWI US aviation, whether Mitchell himself is making them or whether others are doing so. It is not clear to me if this is simply how Mitchell appeared to the aviators Hynes is interested in, or if Hynes himself is a fan of Mitchell.
Hynes uses the “hidden” endnotes citation style--citations are not indicated in any way in the body, but rather are identified at the end of the book by page number and the first few words of the sentence. Personally, I find this style frustrating. I was also frustrated by Hynes’s choice not to provide translations when quoting foreign languages: there are several short phrases in French and one in German. Even an extensive block quote in French (p. 51) from a letter home gets only the correspondent’s own brief gloss in English. If something is significant enough to quote in the original language, I think it is only fair to provide a close translation, if only in the notes.
As stated at the beginning of this review, The Unsubstantial Air is more about what the air war felt like to the participants, with no historical analysis or argument. For that reason, it may find greater appreciation among the aviation enthusiast community. That said, the book covers the broad experience of the path from untrained civilian to WWI military aviator more completely than any published single-author papers I have read (whether memoir, diary, collected letters, or some combination), although the synthetic voice means it loses the immediacy of such documents. For the instructor, this book may be more useful in some sort of survey class than the published documents of an individual. For the researcher, it could be a resource for finding such records that speak to a particular issue. However, readers (or instructors) will have to provide the additional knowledge to put these experiences in historical context.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Laurence M. Burke. Review of Hynes, Samuel, The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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