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the last mission

28 october 2022

Harry Mazer's autobiographical The Last Mission is a tautly-written second-world-war novel. It apparently tracks Mazer's war record pretty closely, with one salient change: Mazer was 19 when he bailed out of a stricken American bomber over Czechoslovakia; his protagonist Jack Raab is only 15.

The change was made at some point in the composition or packaging of the book to turn The Last Mission from general fiction into a Young Adult novel. It is the one concession to melodramatic convention in an otherwise blunt and prosaic narrative. Of course situations like the underage Jack Raab's existed, but situations like Mazer's were the rule – they are just not quite as marketable. By taking four years away from his fictional avatar, Mazer also turned a young but grown man's story – remarkable enough at face value – into the conspicuously attention-getting tale of a juvenile hero.

Aside from the assertion that he's never kissed a girl, Jack Raab might as well be 19 as 15. He is big for his age. He doesn't shave yet, and in his responsible adult job, he feels like an impostor; but a man can be a lot older than 19 and feel like he's the callow kid in his workplace. Mazer writes in the third person, but the perspective is strictly limited to Jack, and we hear a lot of Jack's inner monologue, in italics, mostly about how he's going to go bomb the heck out of Hitler.

Jack (like his creator) is a Jewish kid from the Bronx, and his initial gung-ho motives for enlisting are very plausible. So is his war experience. A lot of mind-numbing training, a lot of cursing and male-bonding insults, the feeling of camaraderie … and then the actual flying of missions, which is not so much disillusioning as it is surreal. Anti-aircraft fire doesn't seem real; even being hit by a spent piece of flak (which he keeps as a lucky piece) seems to Jack as if it's happening to somebody else. He is a waist gunner in a B-17 and never fires his weapon. It is the last weeks of the war; the Germans have few fighters in the air to oppose the Allies. The victims of the bombing are far below and anonymous. Destroyed cities look like dark smears or burnt waffles. "They delivered bombs the way mailmen delivered letters, and then they went home" (83).

Getting shot down, captured, and marched aimlessly across central Europe as a POW don't enhance Jack's sense of the glory of combat. Hitler needed defeating, but Jack ultimately concludes that "almost anything has to be better than war" (180).

For reasons that may remain obscure, American air forces produced some of the most memorable writing of the second world war: poems like Richard Eberhart's "Fury of Aerial Bombardment" and Randall Jarrell's "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," novels like Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Greatest-generation rhetoric, which has elements of truth scattered through its sentimentalizations, must always be tempered by the unflinching accounts of the trauma that war inflicts even on victors. Harry Mazer's Last Mission is a strong contribution to that genre.

Mazer, Harry. The Last Mission. 1979. New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf [Random House], 1981.