Historically Speaking: Duels Among the Clouds

Aerial combat was born during World War I, giving the world a new kind of military hero: the fighter pilot

“Top Gun” is back. The 1986 film about Navy fighter pilots is getting a sequel next year, with Tom Cruise reprising his role as Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the sexy flyboy who can’t stay out of trouble. Judging by the trailer released by Paramount in July, the new movie, “Top Gun: Maverick,” will go straight to the heart of current debates about the future of aerial combat. An unseen voice tells Mr. Cruise, “Your kind is headed for extinction.”

The mystique of the fighter pilot began during World War I, when fighter planes first entered military service. The first aerial combat took place on Oct. 5, 1914, when French and German biplanes engaged in an epic contest in the sky, watched by soldiers on both sides of the trenches. At this early stage, neither plane was armed, but the German pilot had a rifle and the French pilot a machine gun; the latter won the day.

A furious arms race ensued. The Germans turned to the Dutch engineer Anthony Fokker, who devised a way to synchronize a plane’s propeller with its machine gun, creating a flying weapon of deadly accuracy. The Allies soon caught up, ushering in the era of the dogfight.

From the beginning, the fighter pilot seemed to belong to a special category of warrior—the dueling knight rather than the ordinary foot soldier. Flying aces of all nationalities gave each other a comradely respect. In 1916, the British marked the downing of the German fighter pilot Oswald Boelcke by dropping a wreath in his honor on his home airfield in Germany.

But not until World War II could air combat decide the outcome of an entire campaign. During the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, the German air force, the Luftwaffe, dispatched up to 1,000 aircraft in a single attack. The Royal Air Force’s successful defense of the skies led to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famous declaration, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

The U.S. air campaigns over Germany taught American military planners a different lesson. Rather than focusing on pilot skills, they concentrated on building planes with superior firepower. In the decades after World War II, the invention of air-to-air missiles was supposed to herald the end of the dogfight. But during the Vietnam War, steep American aircraft losses caused by the acrobatic, Soviet-built MiG fighter showed that one-on-one combat still mattered. The U.S. response to this threat was the highly maneuverable twin-engine F-15 and the formation of a new pilot training academy, the Navy Fighter Weapons School, which inspired the original “Top Gun.”

Since that film’s release, however, aerial combat between fighter planes has largely happened on screen, not in the real world. The last dogfight involving a U.S. aircraft took place in 1999, during the NATO air campaign in Kosovo. The F-14 Tomcats flown by Mr. Cruise’s character have been retired, and his aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, has been decommissioned.

Today, conventional wisdom again holds that aerial combat is obsolete. The new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is meant to replace close-up dogfights with long-range weapons. But not everyone seems to have read the memo about the future of air warfare. Increasingly, U.S. and NATO pilots are having to scramble their planes to head off Russian incursions. The knights of the skies can’t retire just yet.

WSJ Historically Speaking: Postal Pitfalls, From Beacons to Emails

Charles Francis Adams was an American historical editor, politician and diplomat. He was the son of President John Quincy Adams and grandson of President John Adams, of whom he wrote a major biography. PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Charles Francis Adams was an American historical editor, politician and diplomat. He was the son of President John Quincy Adams and grandson of President John Adams, of whom he wrote a major biography. PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

It’s now 150 years since a trans-Atlantic cable finally crackled into continuous action after nine years of false starts and disappointments. The transmission speed of up to eight words a minute seemed to the Victorians almost godlike. Small wonder that the first telegram in the U.S., sent about two decades earlier, had read, “What hath God wrought.”

Our desire for instantaneous dialogue is as old as language itself. Contemporaries praised the masterful use of rapid communication by Persian King Xerxes I, who ruled from 486 to 465 B.C. and was famous for having slaughtered the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Xerxes’ messengers were the best in the ancient world, for “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor night holds back for the accomplishment of the course.” That sentiment, translated a bit differently, ended up chiseled in stone above the front columns of the New York City Post Office on Eighth Avenue. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: London’s WWI Exhibit and Other Memorable Memorials

Photo: UPPA/ZUMA PRESS

Photo: UPPA/ZUMA PRESS

One of the most beautiful and sublime war memorials in modern history, the ceramic sea of poppies around the Tower of London, will vanish forever in two weeks’ time. The temporary installation, “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper, has attracted more than 4 million visitors since volunteers began “planting” the 888,246 poppies in early August—one poppy for each British or Commonwealth soldier who died.

The universal chorus of praise enjoyed by “Blood Swept Lands” is an important reminder that art and commemoration aren’t incompatible. Although it is no easy task to capture the tragedy of death or the essence of personal greatness, it can be done.

That said, public memorials are a notoriously sensitive business, and the result often ends in tears—if not for the artist, then for the public. Lord Byron thought the whole enterprise was a bad idea, especially when it came to commemorating public figures. “What is the end of Fame?” he asked in his poem “Don Juan.” “To have, when the original is dust, / A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust.”

Byron may have been influenced by the public scandal that surrounded the 1822 unveiling of Richard Westmacott’s statue in honor of the duke of Wellington. Westmacott created an 18-foot bronze colossus featuring Achilles in all his naked glory. It was the first nude statue in London since Roman times. The outcry was so great that the artist meekly added a fig leaf, thereby ruining the classical purity of the statue and making it seem more pornographic rather than less. Since then, the statue has been vandalized twice—in the predictable place.

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The Wall Street Journal: Literature: The Tragic Poets of World War I

Photo: THE GRANGER COLLECTION, NEW YORK

Photo: THE GRANGER COLLECTION, NEW YORK

In the early 1940s, the English man of letters Robert Graves observed that patriotic verse had always been written in time of war—but only in World War I did the terms “war poet” and “war poetry” come into use, and both were “peculiar to it.” The soldiers in the trenches included enormous numbers of highly educated young men from nonmilitary backgrounds, who brought a new and different sensibility to the experience of war.

The first notable war poet to emerge was the young Rupert Brooke. His 1915 poem “The Soldier” captured the early spirit of duty and sacrifice: “If I should die, think only this of me; / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England.”

But the Brooke model was short-lived. Later poets challenged the idea that patriotism had any connection with such slaughter. Two in particular, Wilfred Owen (“Dulce et Decorum Est”) and Siegfried Sassoon (“How to Die”), came to symbolize the disillusionment of an entire generation. Where Sassoon was sarcastic, Owen was blunt, as in “Anthem for Doomed Youth”: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns. / Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle.”

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A Brief History of Avoiding Exercise

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Winter storms have become so frequent in the U.S. that they now have names, like hurricanes. This week saw the arrival of Seneca, making for a touch-and-go race about which will run out first: the alphabet or the jet stream. The weather in the eastern U.S. has been brutal enough this year that millions of Americans have been confined to their homes. In a country where, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in six of us does anything like the recommended amount of physical activity, “Snowmaggedon” is a danger to the country’s health as well as its roads.

The ancients knew well that people will use any excuse to avoid exercise—bad weather, of course, being among the most popular. To counteract the natural human tendency toward inertia, the Greeks had their Olympics, the Chinese their tai chi and the Indians their yoga. The Romans went so far as to make exercise a legal requirement for all male citizens age 17 to 60. With the exception of Thomas Aquinas, who was colossally fat, lack of exercise was rarely a problem in the Middle Ages. Few people had time for aerobics when survival was the order of the day.

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‘WSJ Historically Speaking: Tis the Season to Stop Fighting

PETER ARKLE

PETER ARKLE

For some, a traditional Christmas means church and carols; for others, it means presents under the tree. But for countless millions, Christmas also means a day of epic family arguments. As the novelist Graham Greene once observed, “Christmas it seems to me is a necessary festival; we require a season when we can regret all the flaws in our human relationships: it is the feast of failure, sad but consoling.”

A recent survey conducted for the British hotel chain TraveLodge appears to support Greene’s gloomy contention. Two years ago, the chain noticed a sharp upswing in bookings for Christmas Day. Hoping to capitalize on the trend, its marketing department commissioned a poll of 2,500 households to see how the typical British family spends Christmas Day. The findings offered few useful insights for the company but proved a gold mine for sociologists.
The respondents revealed that, on average, the first fight of the day takes place no later than 10:13 a.m., usually after the discovery that someone has consumed all the chocolate. A lull then ensues while presents are opened and the drinks cabinet raided. At 11:42 or so, the children express their disappointment with their haul while the parents become enraged by their lack of gratitude. At noon comes a “discussion” of the level of alcohol consumption before lunch, followed by simmering tension until everyone finally sits down to eat around 2:23. The fragile truce established during the turkey carving is destroyed by a massive family row at 3:24. Exhaustion then sets in until 6:05, when tempers flare over the remote control. At 10:15, there is one final blowup before everyone goes to bed.

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