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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
Well, I suppose so. The first version of it was The Great War and Modern Memory, which is essentially the result of my own war experience and my attempt to make sense of it. Interestingly, I think the idea of that book came to me unconsciously in 1945 when I found myself in Alsace conducting my own platoon war against the Germans in concrete emplacements left over from the First World War. We used those bunkers just as they had been used a generation earlier. I got very interested in the First World War as a sort of prolegomenon to the Second. I wasn’t ready to write about my own war, so I thought, I’ll put some of my awareness of what combat is like in a quasi-scholarly account of the relation of the First World War to general culture. That’s why I did that book.
I remember opening your Great War and Modem Memory to the dedication page and seeing: “To the memory of Technical Sergeant Edward Keith Hudson, ASN 36548772, Co. F., 410th Infantry, killed beside me in France, March 15, 1945.” I thought that here at last might be a different kind of book about the Great War.
Let me say a word about that dedication. I have always tried to get telling details into my books. In the piece I just finished writing for The Norton Book of Modern War, I talk about the immense numbers of people involved in the Second World War and the consequent anonymity. When the battle cruiser Hood blew up fighting the Bismarck, everybody on it, 1,419 men, was killed, except three men. My wife sometimes helps me with research, and I gave her the job of finding out the names and ranks of those three men, because I wanted to make the point that these numbers mean nothing when they’re detached from individuals. She actually found the names, and I’ve got them in there.
In the same way—in that dedication to the memory of Sergeant Hudson—I wrote the Army to get his serial number because I knew that would make a very subtle ironic point about this guy’s relation to the whole proceeding, and it took them about a year to find it. I’m always anxious for details like that because you convince the reader of your own probity and the verisimilitude of what you’re getting at. You’re not making this up. You’re an accurate and responsible reporter, and the more of that you convey to the reader the better he’ll be prepared to receive the things in your book that are not reporting, that are interpretations.
Historians sometimes get very angry at what I do, and what I have to say is that although I use historical data, I’m essentially writing an essay. One critic thought he was dumping on The Great War and Modern Memory when he called it a gothic elegy, but I agreed with him: it is a gothic elegy. If I were really working in history, it probably wouldn’t be readable. One has to color it emotionally. One has to make the reader cry and laugh to get anywhere with the sort of work that I want to do.
You’ve said that though you’re a professor of English literature, you’ve mostly gone through life as a pissed-off infantryman. That refusal to concede anything to sentimentality seems to be disappearing in American letters and certainly in modern American life as the wars recede. What is on the horizon?
Well, I’m not sure that when the Vietnam War veterans get to be my age—I’m sixty-five—we won’t have some superb material. Their experience would have been processed through memory, and we’ll get some real literature instead of just grievances and complaints. It takes about a lifetime for you to decide in what form you’re going to couch your own response to these experiences, and I think this is why it wasn’t until my present age that I decided to write about the second war.
Memory, public and official and academic, occupies a great deal of your attention in all your work. I take it you’ve concluded that memory is so fragile and subject to manipulation and corruption that it is always to be regarded with skepticism and that sometimes these corruptions are so deeply entrenched that they can be uprooted only by satire.
By satire or by documents. Although not a historian, I’ve learned to distrust almost everything except documents dating from roughly the moment of the event they describe. I treasure the remark by Wright Morris, the novelist—a great observation: “Everything processed by memory is fiction.” It has to be; otherwise it doesn’t have the form that it requires if you’re going to recall it from memory. It has to be a coherent thing, and that means it’s got to have plot imposed on it. I’ve written a lot about how ironic plots make possible wartime memory.
Well before this book was finished, you said that you were still trying to bridge the gap between experience and writing about experience. Has Wartime done that?