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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
It’s not easy to believe that the cause of the war would have been forwarded, or that the war would have ended earlier than it did, if people had been told about body parts flying around on the battlefield and horrible things. They were not told them. So I may imply in the book that the selfcensorship was a sort of violation of the spirit of the war, but in a sense it was not. Because the object in the war was to win it as fast as possible, and if lying would do it, if false comfort would do it, if fraudulent representation would do it, these were weapons as honorable as any other.
The object of the war was to win it fast, and if lying and false comfort helped, these were weapons as honorable as any.
So it’s a very complicated question. I don’t know how it would have aided the war if people had known more of the truth about what combat involves than they were told. That would have aided the cause of universal truth and the development of the human intellect, but it wouldn’t have won the war any faster. It probably would have slowed it down.
Of course, in later wars there was a great deal of tension between public information officers and the representatives of the media, an adversarial relationship.
The Vietnam War might be still going on if it had been a constitutional war, which would have made it possible to exercise treason statutes against those who were impeding the war effort. But because it was not a declared war, they had to be allowed entire freedom, and consequently they ruined the war effort. The moral is, Don’t fight undeclared wars. The Constitution has carefully forbidden them, and every one that we’ve fought has ended very badly. Even the Korean War ended by killing a vast number of people and accomplishing nothing. It ended where it began and devastated both sides of the country.
So the Founders—excuse my sentimentality, but I care deeply about this—the Founders realized from experience in Europe that a war, bad as it is, must be popular. Everybody must be behind it or it won’t work. There must be wide popular support for it. So they carefully wrote into the Constitution that war is declared by the Congress. They had no idea that what they also said (largely to honor George Washington), that the President would be the commander in chief of the Army, was going to be used by people like Ronald Reagan as a way of frustrating the popular will.
In this, as in your other works, you attain a mastery of your subject by drawing from unconventional sources.
You get interested in everything that bears upon it—old files of Life magazine, The Saturday Evening Post , and so on, which I’m fascinated by, and any sort of ephemera that seems to shed light on the subject. When you work with such material, you become extremely sensitive to it; your whole life then is devoted to awareness of these things you may not have noticed before. Consequently you become conscious of popular music and the way popular music always expresses the popular will; otherwise it won’t succeed. You become conscious of the fact that advertising is the real American literature, and that’s where you go to find people’s secret hopes and dreams embodied, and so I did a lot on advertising, radio commercials, things like that.
I also like to get away from literature. I’ve learned how to interpret literature, and it’s fun for me to learn how to interpret other sorts of documents. I can say wonderful things about sonnets, but there’s no fun because I know I can do it. But to say something about a Rinso ad is a challenge.
Did you wonder what Wartime might be like if you were a German, a Japanese, a Russian, an Italian?
No, I haven’t, but it’s interesting. The book probably couldn’t be done, because it has to be by somebody who won the war; otherwise the news that the event was not entirely happy isn’t astonishing. The Germans wouldn’t be at all astonished to be told that their war was nasty. They were bombed; they know it. Everybody there lost a relative or two or a whole family and all their possessions, so to bring to their attention that the war was vile wouldn’t be interesting.
But the very fact that we won the war gives the war a sort of happy atmosphere that needs to be trimmed down a bit. It violates what actually happened in the war.
Before reading the book, I rather expected I would find a chapter on heroism and cowardice.
I don’t know why I didn’t do anything with that, !t just wasn’t a subject that interested me. I might have attempted a definition of heroism and cowardice—I dealt with that topic a bit in the section on fear, where people brought themselves finally to recognize that fear was inevitable.
During the war the medics were quick to say, and you say in your book as well, that to anyone who’s been on the line, there isn’t any such thing as getting used to combat. I take it you think that in such circumstances terms like bravery and cowardice really aren’t useful.