War and Disillusionment
As Paul Fussell reminds us in The Great War and Modern Memory,1 '[t]he Great War took place in what was, compared to ours, a static world, where the values appeared stable and the meanings of abstractions seemed permanent and reliable. Everyone knew what Glory was and what Honor meant.' In War Birds we get what might be described as the prewar versus the post-war mindset of those who went off to 'save the world for democracy.' On the one hand, John McGavock Grider died before he had had a chance to become disillusioned. He had won the love of a beautiful English actress, Billie Carleton. He had won a place in the squadron of one of Britain's top aces, Billy Bishop. Though his letters revealed his homesickness, he wrote that he was determined to 'die well' if necessary for his country.
Elliott White Springs, who completed the diary with his own letters home, then attributed the book's authorship entirely to his dead comrade, was from the outset much more of a skeptic than his more idealistic friend. He would live to see any belief in the rightness of the war completely shattered. 'War is a grotesque comedy,' he wrote. 'All we'll do when we win is to substitute one sort of dictator for another.' For Springs, the war had a duality that almost drove him mad -- on the one hand he was addicted to the danger he faced day after day, on the other he was horrified by the loss of life and his own transformation, experiencing fear 'that grows on you, day by day, that eats into your constitution and undermines your sanity.' Like most World War I pilots, he expected to die. 'Here I am, twenty-four years old, I look forty and I feel ninety. I've lost all interest in life beyond the next patrol.' The war's end found him in a bitter mood 'Peace!,' he wrote on Armistice Day. 'The French are still dancing in the streets. But I can find no enthusiasm. I went to bed a free man but I awoke with a millstone around my neck called tomorrow which pulls and pulls and will hang there 'til the grave.'
1 Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 21