As fiction, Tom Cruise’s sequel to his 80s blockbuster longs for the days of the single warrior in combat, when air-launched explosive violence is all about ground attacks often with civilian casualties

Captain Pete Mitchel is back. Top Gun: Maverick exploded onto the big screen this week, and as a disarmingly endearing example of absurd triumphalism, it succeeded. In a line that viewers will long  remember, bad-guy and drone-advocate Admiral Cain gazes forcefully into Maverick’s eyes and tells him: 

“The end is inevitable, Maverick. Your kind is headed for extinction”

In true Maverick style, Top Gun’s top gun replies:

“Maybe so, sir. But not today.”

Here is the true warrior, the fighter pilot willing to risk his life and use his exceptional skills to further the interests of his country: a man standing up for his place, and the place of pilots trained in dogfighting rather than air-striking, in the face of modern warfare. 

In a nutshell, this line also sums up the lies the world was sold about modern aerial warfare in the original Top Gun film. Twenty years of the War on Terror have shown that heroic dogfights between skilled warriors are not what it’s about. It’s about airstrikes, from on high, on ground targets that, all too often, include civilians.

When Maverick refers to the missions his new trainees have been running up to now, he remarks that they have been mostly carrying out low-personal risk airstrikes, and are consequently ill-prepared for the hands-on dogfighting they’re likely to encounter as they bomb their target. It’s almost wistful.

The reality, of course, is that modern air warfare is dominated by the very real presence of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). These are the drones the film’s Admiral Cain would like to elevate at the expense of manned fighter jets. And Top Gun: Maverick is the fightback.  It speaks to the innate desire for a return to heroic warfare, where a low chance of success and a high chance of death is central to the hero’s framing. It’s warfare between real pilots because, remember, “it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot.” 

All of this in spite of the fact it would have made more strategic sense to use stealthy fifth-generation aircraft like Navy F-35Cs or USAF F-35As/F-22s or B-2s, or even cruise missiles for this mission. But that’s not the point, is it? After all this is testosterone-fuelled fiction, far from the hard truths of war. 

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Dogfights? You Mean Airstrikes

The modern reality of air war lies in the numbers, and it’s a far cry from dogfights.

Since 2010, Action on Armed Violence has recorded 8,222 incidents of air-launched explosive violence, as reported in English-language sources. These have caused a reported 65,009 civilian casualties. Indeed 58% of global casualties of air-launched weapons have been civilians in the last decade. All of these deaths are from airstrikes, none from dogfights. But this framing is totally absent in Top Gun.

What is also absent is the fact that such violence to civilians is entirely the preserve of states. 99% (8,103 incidents) of air-launched explosive violence since 2010 has been attributed to state actors, as well as 99% (64,065) of civilian casualties. Syria is the worst perpetrator of civilian casualties of air-launched explosive weapons (14,339 civilian casualties since 2010), followed by Saudi-led coalitions (9,892), and US-led coalitions (5,432).

Globally, the US is the 8th worst perpetrator of civilian casualties of air-launched explosive violence (1,031 civilian casualties) recorded since 2010. 

But given that – in reality – the majority of those killed or injured from air attacks are civilians, where does this leave societal notions of masculine heroism in air warfare?


Warrior Masculinities

Masculinity has long been associated with dogfighting in the air: from the Red Baron to Tom Cruise’s depiction of the hardened master of the air – the warrior in the cockpit has long been seen as the knight of the 20th Century.

Such a pilot displays all the hallmarks of the warrior archetype. He possesses belligerence and physical prowess; courage, risk-taking, and willingness to defy death; unemotional rationality and logic. But importantly – and seen in Top Gun: Maverick – what is demanded of that warrior is for the risk-taker to come out on top compared to the cautious, calculated warrior. 

This aligns with concepts of the heroic warrior going back to ancient Greece, where the willingness to engage in direct combat with an opponent who had the right and ability to inflict harm was the hallmark of the noble, courageous, fighter.

All of this contrasts sharply with the current realities of much air-launched explosive violence that is unmanned or where risk is minimised.

Killing from a distance has raised debates about martial honour for a long time. Even in the 12th century, the Second Council of the Lateran attempted to outlaw crossbows and this seeps into the film. And in Top Gun: Maverick we see this debate emerge again – a desire for a cleaner, more palatable version of the hero pilot.  

Decades of the ‘War on Terror’ have shown Western pilots and drones conducting an airstrike campaign across the Middle East that has been noted for costing large sums of money, often based on flawed intelligence, and claiming too many civilian lives. The campaign’s success in promoting global security is less well established. And while the film is a far cry from the accountability demanded by sections of the media, it does question the martial honour in the missions that pilots are carrying out, and in the prioritisation of drone warfare over manned aircraft.

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Of course, though, this is Hollywood. The film doesn’t address the issue of civilian casualties of manned and unmanned strikes: in Maverick’s latest mission, the target is isolated from any civilian settlement, and the issue of avoiding civilian casualties is never brought up. The enemy pilots hide behind mirrored helmets; the only casualties of a strike are the pilots of an enemy helicopter, as the last pilot, against whom the film’s showdown takes place, ejects from his craft and presumably lands safely.

In the end, the film reflects the desire for a simpler form of heroism against a clearly defined enemy who threatens something bigger than ourselves; of physical prowess against another warrior in one-on-one, or team-on-team combat. 

The film does not reflect the truth of airstrikes, manned or unmanned, nor does it address the core problematics of air-launched weapons: that warriors are removed from their targets, and from the consequences of their actions on non-combatant victims. What is clear is that the association of masculine heroic warrior ideals with air-launched weapons are fraying around the edges:­ ­­­­­Top Gun 3 might, in the end, be a hard sell. 

Chiara Torelli is a researcher at Action on Armed Violence

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