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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
I hope it will move him to conscientious objection or else impel him cunningly to get into a noncombat branch of the service, if that’s possible. It wasn’t possible for me, partly because I didn’t want to disgrace myself. I was enrolled in Army ROTC in college, and my unit was an infantry unit, and I was enrolled in it for many, many reasons. It was easier than gym. I never liked physical exercise all that much, and I enjoyed certain things about the military. I enjoyed its formality. Formality has always attracted me in literature. I prefer ordered verse to free verse, for example. I prefer eighteenth-century understandings of literary structure to loose understandings.
Knowing what I know now, I would not have been in the infantry. I might have been in the ordnance, which my father was in the First World War. He spent the war riding a horse around an ammunition dump near Bordeaux, a dump of which he had charge. He made a daily inspection around it and had a perfectly satisfactory war. Now, of course, I’d try to get in intelligence or OSS or something involving some kind of intellectual talent. But I was too young in those days to have such pretensions. I was just as bright then as I am now, but nobody knew it.
James Jones has argued that history is too much the story of the top downward. Would you agree?
Well, to a degree, but I talk a lot about the top as well. I talk about Churchill’s drinking, and I talk about the difficulty of making top decisions. I end the book, certainly, with a focus at the top. I’d treated the leader class in the book with a degree of disdain up to that point. But I thought I would end by indicating that there is very much another side to it.
You end the book by quoting Eisenhower’s revisions to his famous Normandy message, when he drafted a public statement that was to be released in case the invasion failed on the beaches.
He started by trying to sort of sneak out of responsibility by saying, “The troops have been withdrawn,” as if some distant, anonymous agency had made the decision. Then he caught himself—I used the word nobly—caught himself at it and decided that he had to earn the privilege of leadership by accepting all responsibility, which few people realized. So he said, “If any blame or fault attaches to this attempt, it is mine alone.” I thought that was wonderful.