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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
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.
I think sick or well is better, or innocent or experienced. I mean, everybody innocent is going to give the impression of courage, as I did the first six weeks on the line. I gave the impression I was incredibly brave, because I was stupid and ignorant, and I would lead patrols and I would volunteer for things and place myself in great danger, to the immense annoyance of my platoon, whom I was jeopardizing by these gestures. Gradually that security begins to wear away until you end just on the brink of what would look like cowardice. You try to give the impression that you’re more in control than you know you can be. I think if I had stayed a week longer without being wounded, I probably would have broken down right on the line. I did break down in the hospital after about three or four days.
After you finally realized that you had escaped?
Well, knowing that I had gotten my sergeant killed, feeling guilty that I hadn’t given the right orders to save more of my people. The artillery barrage that got us was predictable. We were coming out of the woods, and there was an open space in front of us that we were going to have to cross, and this self-propelled gun was in the woods across the way. It saw our skirmish line beginning to approach, so systematically- some would say Germanically—it began firing from its right to left, and it dropped a shell about every fifty yards in sequence. The one that hit me was about the eighth shell, and you could have seen the pattern by the second or third shell, and I should have. I got my men into the dugouts, so fewer of them were hurt than might have been, but somehow I froze with my sergeant and this machine-gun officer on top of the dugout. We didn’t see what was happening. And by the time we perceived it, by the time the penultimate shell hit fifty yards to our left, we realized the next one was going to hit us. But by that time it was too late to do anything. And to have run into the bunker at that point would have been to risk a panic, so we simply stayed there and got hit. There are many reasons why you get hit, and some of them involve questions like that. You know, both ignorance and getting hit are better than what might have happened otherwise. So we just stayed there.
The German junior officers were much better than ours, partly because they were desperate and didn’t loaf around.
You quote a very affecting passage from Robin Maugham’s Come to Dust in which just after a tank battle in North Africa he sits down to read Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson while a trapped soldier screams. I showed this passage to a friend of mine who had fought in Vietnam, and it immediately brought to his mind one day when he ate a can of C-rations while studying a beautiful severed hand that lay immediately nearby.
Well, one has to eat. You know, I had a very good platoon sergeant who got wounded and who came back. I saw him again in the Alps when we were occupying there in Austria, and we got drunk one night. I said, “Look, I know you disapproved of me many times, but tell me the time you disapproved of me the most, what I did that annoyed you most.”
He said, “It was the time you’d come back from helping Lieutenant Goodman,” who’d been shot in the back. I had helped him and put a couple of pads on him, and my hands were covered with blood, and there was no place to wash them, and I was very hungry. And I opened a can of C-ration cheese, great yellow cheese, and with these bloodied hands, which I didn’t even notice, I ate the cheese. He said, “At that point I really almost gave up on you. I thought you were incredibly insensitive and bloody-minded and so on,” and I said, “Well, I never even noticed.” I had to do these two things: One was to help Lieutenant Goodman and get him back to the medics before he died of bleeding, and the other was to eat my cheese. And I did them both.
If someone innocent of combat reads Wartime, what do you hope he will take from it?