To what extent is Bishop ever "in control" of the events chronicled in the play Billy Bishop Goes to War by John Gray?
At the end of the play Bishop experiences a moment of doubt, wondering, "What it was all for?" given that WWI didn't resolve anything. He seemingly shrugs off his doubt with the rhetorical statement, "But then, we're not in control of any of these things, are we?"
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The idea behind "what was it all for?" was the promise, the belief and the conviction that World War I was "the War to end all wars." In other words, it was believed ardently that after such dreadful carnage and destruction, there would be no more wars started between Western powers again ... ever. Diplomacy and unity was to resolve all conflicts and disagreements (ah, but greed for power was somehow overlooked ...).
World War II, a little more than a dozen years later, while survivors of the Great War, the War to end all wars, were still alive and wrestling with their memories of destruction and bloodshed, put the lie to the cherished beliefs and rationalizations of those, like Billy Bishop, who fought through and lived through the Great War. All of those generations asked, "What was it all for then?" if there is to be more war. What lesson didn't we learn and why didn't we learn it?"
In Billy Bishop Goes to War by John Gray, the things that Bishop controls are not always meritorious; and the sense of control in the world at large is an illusion at best—for some might well argue that no one is really in control of anything.
Bishop has control over his choices when he first joins the service, but he's not concerned with serving as much as surviving; he does not take the war seriously at all. Flying is a way to get off the ground and out of the infantry: a safer position, he thinks. Lady St. Helier makes her observations of his choices clear when she gives him his first pep talk:
You will cease this mediocrity your record only too clearly reveals. You will become the pilot you wished to be but were lamentably content to settle for less...you must recover the health you have so seriously undermined.
When Bishop learns the service is not training any more pilots, he does his best to find ways in which not to serve (believing he is canon fodder in the infantry). His poor physical condition serves him well in this. But again, he has no control: when Lady St. Helier speaks to "Churchill himself," Bishop is told that he will train to be a pilot. (By this time, a medical discharge on the horizon has already taken away his wish to fly.) Told he needs a medical exam to get into the training program, he tells the audience:
Medical examination! What about my weak heart? What about the fact that three weeks ago I was on the verge of a medical discharge?
But he does train. Reality sets in on his first solo flight: he's scared and lonely. The vainglorious dream of soaring through the clouds had never included the dangers he would face. In that first flight it is not lost on him that...
...An ambulance is parked at the edge of the field with engines running...that there's a surgical team in the hospital, just ready to rip.
Bishop is a great pilot: he loves it. By the time he becomes a hero (his record of planes downed hovering closely to Ball's), Lady St. Helier informs Bishop that he can't be out partying like the loser he used to be (as she infers):
You are no longer a rather short Canadian with bad taste and a poor service record. You are a figurehead...A dignitary...
This is not something Bishop expected or could control. For him, flying was something he had thought would keep him safe. Now it was a contest—a lark. But here he is forced to live up to society's expectations.
The only time Bishop really takes control is when he ventures into enemy territory—without orders—to take out "a German aerodrome single handedly." While his sense of heroism takes over and he succeeds and survives, he also watches two men whose plane he takes out, plummet to the earth: he can do nothing to save them— he has no control over the situation.
Upon his return, he is forced into retirement (again, he has no control) in order to keep him safe and, therefore, new enlistees' morale up. And he realizes, too, that today's heroes are soon forgotten:
...Like ancestors before us,
...like them, we're going to disappear.
Boiled down to the essential facts, whatever drove Bishop in WWI, by the time WWII arrives, he realizes that the heroes and leaders come and go, but war never changes. The lives of those lost, the things he achieved, meant nothing. This sobering realization is a commentary on the fact that war will always be with us—and again, we have no control. He asks:
What it was all for?
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