Marked for Death
The First War in the Air
Pegasus Books, New York, 2016, 416 pages
Book Review published on: December 29, 2017
Flying is dangerous. This remark may seem obvious to some and overly dramatic to others. However, considering our experiences with airline safety records and the omnipresence of aviation, in modern society we accept flying as a routine and relatively safe event. We are only occasionally reminded about the true dangers of aviation through events such as the attacks of 11 September 2001 and Capt. Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger’s landing on the Hudson River.
This was not the case with aviation at the beginning of the twentieth century. Scores of aviators, technicians, and factory workers died learning the hard lessons of the unforgiving environment that they did not understand.
Our general understanding of that time is quite clouded as well. We conjure up romantic images of the military pilot, complete with goggles and scarf, engaging in the gallant air fight against the Red Baron. These images tend to paint a rosier but inaccurate picture of what life, particularly air combat, was truly like during World War I. Anthony Fokker clarified this, saying, “Every man who went aloft was marked for death, sooner or later, once his wheels had left the ground.”
Marked for Death sets the record straight. Author James Hamilton-Paterson tears apart these clean images of romance and a simpler time, and wrestles with the uncertainty and peril political that military leaders and aircrews faced daily in the early 1900s. These hazards were exponentially exacerbated by the demands and requirements of one of the bloodiest events in history, the First World War.
Hamilton-Paterson’s work in Marked for Death covers subjects such as politics and policy in Great Britain, aircraft design, armament, combat flying, aircrew training, and homeland defense, among many others. In his writing, he takes a critical view of our mental models of World War I, using articles, speeches, quotes, and personal memoirs to bring us back to the realities of that time. The author takes a balanced and fair approach when doling out praise and criticism to all who participated in the aviation enterprise, including those from France, Germany, Italy, and the United States.
Marked for Death is not a comprehensive World War I aviation resource. The author fully acknowledges this and makes it clear that the subjects selected are ones of interest to him. Additionally, this book is written primarily from the British and German points of view. American readers will find a few references to the U.S. contribution in World War I but not many. This is justified, as the United States entered the war very late, and the majority of aircraft used by U.S. aircrews were manufactured in other countries (e.g., France, United Kingdom, etc.).
The reader should take some key lessons from Marked for Death. They include the minimal overall impact of aviation in World War I, the inherent dangers of aviation that were unknown at the time, the problems of incorporating new technology into a battlefield and society, the subsequent necessity of air superiority to future conflicts (World War II, Vietnam, Desert Storm, etc.), and the risk that countries take when they ignore these lessons.
I recommend Marked for Death to anyone who desires to learn about forgotten aspects of the First World War. This book was engaging and should be read by historians, military aviators, acquisition and capability managers, and any leader who must implement new and dangerous technology with limited understanding of the risks incurred.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Jacob A. Mong, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas