The lonely warrior

Salter, a former fighter pilot, writes directly from experience in this novel of U.S. fighter pilots in the Korean War. He draws an internal picture of the psychology of the single combat warrior, and it feels genuine. His portrayal of heroism in the cloistered world of aerial combat does not always translate into obvious laudable accomplishment.

The author shows the slow maturity of a man who begins with unforced flying skills: "He was a natural flyer, not a cultivated one, and he had always known it: the ability had been there from the start; the amount of effort required to convert it into excellence had been small. It was like being a boy with a good memory in a history class. That was something you could be proud of, but never haughty." (page 7) 

Motivation to strap ones self into a cockpit of an armed rocket and climb up to kill or be killed cannot be easy to come by or simple to describe. Most of this novel is engaged in the mental world of Cleve Connell, an experienced pilot assigned the role of combat leadership. The exhilaration, nervousness, fear, jealousies, the sharp fluctuation in attitudes a warrior feels from moment to moment get close focus and pristine description. As he lives and endures in this closed world, his motivations and reasons he gives himself for fighting change rapidly: "There had been many ambitions, all of them true at the time. They were scattered behind him like the ashes of old campfires, though he had warmed himself at every one of them." (page 132) 

A pilot becomes a member of the club only if credited with a kill, if they shoot down an enemy fighter in air-to-air combat. The ultimate club, though, is that of the aces, who have been credited with five kills. Much is forgiven if this is accomplished. Nothing less than this is the primary means of arriving in this society. Cleve must lead men who work as closely as possible together for their mutual survival. Yet the aces too often are men who seek only their own glory at the expense of their comrades, shirking their duty to protect their comrades first, working the system to record sometimes dubious kills.

The final heroism of Cleve is the relinquishing of the glory that comes from the acknowledged kill.

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