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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
Such people as you mentioned seem to me to lack imagination of other people’s predicaments and consequently to view the world optimistically, as if the whole world were like Southern California, full of sunshine and good fellowship and fun and superficial pleasures. It’s the absence of a tragic sense that I’m suggesting, which is very hard to get over to most Americans because they never really have had the experience, which is highly tragic and ironic. They can’t even imagine it. If they would read more Oedipus Rex and King Lear, under decent instruction, it would help.
This is why my literary interests parallel my political and social and critical interests. It’s all one big package. I love teaching eighteenth-century literature because it’s ironic and skeptical, and it doesn’t hold that people need to be protected against the condition of human foolishness.
Wartime is a book that seems to look forward as well as backward. The first of September, 1989, was the fiftieth anniversary of the Polish invasion, which inaugurates for the next six years a great line of fiftieth-anniversary commemorations. Could Wartime be taken as a cautionary tale for all those who would launch celebrations?
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the resounding vietory, which was moral as well as military, of the Allies in that war. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as it is accompanied with an appropriate understanding of the disaster the whole thing visited upon Europe.
Friends who have read pieces of Wartime wanted me to ask whether Fussell thinks he may have gone too far in the other direction—that your picture of this war is simply too grim.
No. It would be impossible to go too far in the other direction. War as an institution is so nasty and so vile. I quote Cyril Connolly in the book, saying something that I agree with entirely: that one must never forget that the war was a war, and therefore stupid, destructive, opposed to every decent and civilized understanding of what life is like.
So I don’t think I went far enough. I didn’t go farther because you want to revolt the reader only up to a certain degree; otherwise you wipe out the effect you’re trying to create. So part of it is a question of literary tact. I could write a whole book about the disposal of human bodies in Europe, which would be fascinating, but 1 think nobody would like to read it except medical doctors and funeral directors.
Would you say then that since 1945 the nation really has not come to grips with the actualities of that war ?
I do say so. And many of the reasons for that are praiseworthy, actually. It was the beneficence, say of the GI Bill, from which I profited. It helped pay for my Ph.D. work at Harvard. The beneficence and benignity of that tended to suggest that human nature was benign, whereas the war itself had argued the opposite, that human nature has a very dangerous leaning toward wickedness, original sin, vileness, and delight in destruction and sadism. So it was partly American decency, which is always to be praised and celebrated, that helped wipe out some of the viler memories of that war, and it set us back on a highly American optimistic track again.
How much of that optimism would you be willing to see in our later involvement in the Southeast Asian wars ?
I think it had a lot to do with it, because it was assumed that anything we did must have been done from benign motives, since people imagined that repression of what was called communism in Southeast Asia was somehow serving the causes embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But I remember that the original entry into the South Vietnam quagmire was justified in President Kennedy’s inaugural speech, where he said that we will bear any burden, et cetera, et cetera, in order to advance the cause of freedom. The problem was that we misidentified the South Vietnamese government as being connected in any way with the cause of freedom.
But at its start, the war could be conceived of as a fairly noble enterprise. It was only as it turned sour that people began to see ways in which it was not. No war starts out vicious. It starts out as an attempt to clean up something that is vile and to redress some injustice. Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia on the excuse of rescuing the Germans there—giving the action a plausible color. Nobody ever says, “Look, I’m going to invade your country because I feel like it,” or “because I’m an invader,” or “I want what you’ve got.”
No war starts out vicious. Nobody ever says, “Look, I’m going to invade your country because I feel like it.”
And then the war changes shape?
It inevitably escapes control because that’s the nature of modern war. If bombs won’t do the job, then you invent atomic bombs, and if they won’t do the job, then you invent hydrogen bombs. War takes charge, in other words. And war knows nothing about the ideological reasons that have propelled it. The war is an engineering operation.