- Historic Sites
The Real War
Walt Whitman said, “The real war will never get in the books.” The critic and writer Paul Fussell feels that the same sanitizing of history that went on after the 1860s has erased the national memory of what World War II was really like.
November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
The big push” is how the G-3 journal of the 103d Infantry Division described its attack against elements of the German 19th Army on November 16, 1944. At H-plus-15, American guns bombarded enemy lines, and the regiments moved forward. In Company F of the 410th Infantry Regiment, the future author of Wartime, 2d Lt. Paul Fusse!!, was about to receive his baptism of fire and his first Purple Heart when shrapnel tore up his elbow. That was near St-Dié, on the western slopes of the Vosges Mountains of Alsace.
Nearly five months and a hundred miles later—an eternity for infantry companies and those in them—Fussell “won” another Purple Heart when an excellently placed airburst blew more shrapnel into his back and legs as he and two comrades lay trapped on top of a bunker. The only survivor of this disaster, Fussell spent the rest of the war in the hospital—except that he didn’t know it was the rest of the war. His legs buckling under the slightest strain, and gasping for breath when he even thought of more combat, Fussell was pronounced fit for duty and reassigned to the 45th Infantry Division, then preparing for its part in the invasion of Japan. When word came of the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Fussell later wrote, he and his fellow soldiers celebrated. Very simply, the bombs meant they would live.
During the bitter winter’s combat in Alsace and the Rhineland, Fussell remembers, he was profoundly, irretrievably affected by the insanity of doing again what had been done only a generation before. The same bunkered defenses punctuated the battlescapes where soldiers of the Great War had strained to slaughter one another, and in between the mortal dramas of World War II combat the soldier’s miseries were hardly different from those of 1914-18.
After demobilization in 1946 and then graduate work at Harvard, Fussell began his academic career as a scholar of eighteenth-century English literature, publishing four books on poetic form, rhetoric, and humanism, including Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing. In 1975 Fussell published The Great War and Modern Memory, a work now regarded as the classic evocation of the First World War through its literature and culture. That book won the National Book Award.
Since then Fussell has earned a reputation as one of the most considerable essayists on the American scene, known for deploying the eighteenth century’s wit against the culture of the twentieth in a succession of articles and books, including The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations and Thank God for the Atomic Bomb and Other Essays. But by his own testimony he has gone through life since 1945 as a “pissed-off infantryman,” as one who looks at the world from the secret places inhabited only by those who have moved, rifle in hand, “against an enemy who designs your death.”
In his newest book, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (Oxford University Press), Fussell attends directly to the war in which he fought, exercising a critical and provocative judgment on its passage into history. It is a passage that he insists has been altogether too happy: from its first shot to its last and ever since, the war has been “sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty.” Even while the war was being fought, memory was forced to stretch itself around the disaster and grew thinner with every corpse. The ground thus lost by “intellect, discrimination, honesty, individuality, complexity, ambiguity, and irony, not to mention privacy and wit,” in Fussell’s view, has never been regained. In this interview Fussell discusses how his judgments have been purchased by a lifetime of scholarship as well as by a lifetime’s worth of combat.
One must never forget that the Second World War was a war, and therefore stupid, destructive, nasty, and vile.
Now the Donald T. Regan Professor of English Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, Fussell is completing his newest work, The Norton Book of Modern War. This interview took place at his home in Philadelphia.
As you make very clear in Wartime, the memory of the Second World War has taken a beating at the hands of “euphemizers” and “Disneyfiers,” so let’s do a pop quiz: What do Walt Disney, Henry Luce, and Edna St. Vincent Millay have in common?
Ignorance preeminently. Ignorance about the conditions, the real conditions, of human life, as experienced by almost everybody in the world except Americans—who’ve never been bombed. Who have an abundance of food and goods. And who have never had the experience of most Europeans of almost starving for a six-year period.