One does not need to dig too deeply into Randall Jarrell’s poem “Losses” to detect a theme. It is not implied so much as presented as fact. Bomber pilots, cannon fodder for the politicians who send young men to their deaths for sometimes indeterminate reasons (kind of a strange angle given the war in question is World War II and the enemy is Hitler’s Germany, but target selection and level of risk associated with certain targets invariably leads to a sense of futility on the part of those risking their lives), are at the center of Jarrell’s poem. “Losses” clearly refers to the myriad ways in which young men died during the phases of their participation in the war. Bomber crews were generally expected to fly a certain number of missions, usually 25, with those who survived intact often allowed to retire or be reassigned to less hazardous duties. The dangers inherent in flying large, slow bombers through heavy anti-aircraft fire while also fighting off enemy fighters in the air, especially when friendly fighter escorts were in short supply, cannot be overstated. Over 14,000 Americans were reportedly lost, with thousands more captured and held prisoner under dismal conditions after being shot down. Additionally, the training associated with preparations for such missions was itself extremely dangerous, with thousands of aircraft destroyed during training exercises. “Losses” expresses the dangers and occasional futility associated with these bombing missions, and does so in a rather unique way.
The first phase, or section, of Jarrell’s poem involves that training regimen and the anonymity associated with dying under such circumstances. There is no glory in being killed in a training accident so far from combat:
We died on the wrong page of the almanac,
Scattered on mountains fifty miles away;
Diving on haystacks, fighting with a friend,
We blazed up on the lines we never saw.
We died like aunts or pets or foreigners.
“Losses” then transitions from training in the United States to advanced training and deployment to forward staging bases in Great Britain, from which many bombing missions were launched. Training is over, and combat missions begin:
In our new planes, with our new crews, we bombed
The ranges by the desert or the shore,
Fired at towed targets, waited for our scores--
And turned into replacements and woke up
One morning, over England, operational.
The third section is particularly interesting, in that the poem’s tone changes and the real-life pilot mentality takes over. Fighter and bomber pilots are notoriously unsympathetic to colleagues who crash or are shot down, ascribing the tragedy to amateurish mistakes. ‘The pilot or aircrew had to have screwed-up, and that is not going to happen to me.’ Having spent a great deal of time around military pilots, that is a common mentality, and helps shield these flyers from the insecurities that could result in their own fallibility becoming apparent. Hence, the line:
It wasn't different: but if we died
It was not an accident but a mistake
The poem now becomes especially cynical and morose, including with respect to the anonymity of those on the other end of these bombing missions – the civilians residing in cities that were targeted for sometimes legitimate military reasons, but sometimes for political or psychological reasons irrespective to military priorities:
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school--
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, 'Our casualties were low.'
Europe’s long, fascinating history, symbolized in the architectural styles common to cities like Dresden and Berlin, is rendered purely academic by the exigencies of the efforts at destroying Hitler’s regime. Again, to those who shoulder the burden of planning military campaigns, the loss of lives, while certainly regrettable, is a price that has to be paid to accomplish the broader objectives. Jarrell’s text is replete with examples of that price. Soldiers in a war exist to carry out the orders of those above them, no matter how dangerous. They carry dog-tags or other forms of identification that include service numbers – their only real identity. Their loss may be tragic, but it is always rationalized as necessary. That is the theme of “Losses,” and the techniques Jarrell employs include the change in tone from one passage to another, the mere expression of phases in the military tours of bomber crews, and the inevitable descent into uncertainty regarding one’s purpose in war in which one represents little more than cannon fodder.