November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
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.
The big push” is how the G-3 journal of the 103d Infantry Division described its attack against elements of the German 19th Army on November 16, 1944. At H-plus-15, American guns bombarded enemy lines, and the regiments moved forward. In Company F of the 410th Infantry Regiment, the future author of Wartime, 2d Lt. Paul Fusse!!, was about to receive his baptism of fire and his first Purple Heart when shrapnel tore up his elbow. That was near St-Dié, on the western slopes of the Vosges Mountains of Alsace.
Nearly five months and a hundred miles later—an eternity for infantry companies and those in them—Fussell “won” another Purple Heart when an excellently placed airburst blew more shrapnel into his back and legs as he and two comrades lay trapped on top of a bunker. The only survivor of this disaster, Fussell spent the rest of the war in the hospital—except that he didn’t know it was the rest of the war. His legs buckling under the slightest strain, and gasping for breath when he even thought of more combat, Fussell was pronounced fit for duty and reassigned to the 45th Infantry Division, then preparing for its part in the invasion of Japan. When word came of the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Fussell later wrote, he and his fellow soldiers celebrated. Very simply, the bombs meant they would live.
During the bitter winter’s combat in Alsace and the Rhineland, Fussell remembers, he was profoundly, irretrievably affected by the insanity of doing again what had been done only a generation before. The same bunkered defenses punctuated the battlescapes where soldiers of the Great War had strained to slaughter one another, and in between the mortal dramas of World War II combat the soldier’s miseries were hardly different from those of 1914-18.
After demobilization in 1946 and then graduate work at Harvard, Fussell began his academic career as a scholar of eighteenth-century English literature, publishing four books on poetic form, rhetoric, and humanism, including Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing. In 1975 Fussell published The Great War and Modern Memory, a work now regarded as the classic evocation of the First World War through its literature and culture. That book won the National Book Award.
Since then Fussell has earned a reputation as one of the most considerable essayists on the American scene, known for deploying the eighteenth century’s wit against the culture of the twentieth in a succession of articles and books, including The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations and Thank God for the Atomic Bomb and Other Essays. But by his own testimony he has gone through life since 1945 as a “pissed-off infantryman,” as one who looks at the world from the secret places inhabited only by those who have moved, rifle in hand, “against an enemy who designs your death.”
In his newest book, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (Oxford University Press), Fussell attends directly to the war in which he fought, exercising a critical and provocative judgment on its passage into history. It is a passage that he insists has been altogether too happy: from its first shot to its last and ever since, the war has been “sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty.” Even while the war was being fought, memory was forced to stretch itself around the disaster and grew thinner with every corpse. The ground thus lost by “intellect, discrimination, honesty, individuality, complexity, ambiguity, and irony, not to mention privacy and wit,” in Fussell’s view, has never been regained. In this interview Fussell discusses how his judgments have been purchased by a lifetime of scholarship as well as by a lifetime’s worth of combat.
Now the Donald T. Regan Professor of English Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, Fussell is completing his newest work, The Norton Book of Modern War. This interview took place at his home in Philadelphia.
As you make very clear in Wartime, the memory of the Second World War has taken a beating at the hands of “euphemizers” and “Disneyfiers,” so let’s do a pop quiz: What do Walt Disney, Henry Luce, and Edna St. Vincent Millay have in common?
Ignorance preeminently. Ignorance about the conditions, the real conditions, of human life, as experienced by almost everybody in the world except Americans—who’ve never been bombed. Who have an abundance of food and goods. And who have never had the experience of most Europeans of almost starving for a six-year period.
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.”
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.
Your division, as we have noted, went into the line on November 16, near St.-Dié.
The Germans set fire to St.-Dié, angering us very, very much. Just after we attacked, there was an outpouring of priests and nuns from St.-Dié, soliciting help for the people who’d lost everything in this fire the Germans had set.
After the war I found out something very interesting, which has had a lot to do with my sense that more is going on in the Army than you think is going on. Just before the attack I was assigned to a house between the lines, calling down mortar fire on the Germans who’d been silhouetted by the fire they’d laid. I got an order from battalion to send out a patrol with an NCO and three or four men to see how deep the river was between our positions and the Germans. So I sent out my best sergeant and three or four of the six or eight men I had with me, and they went out for a couple of hours and reported that the river was nine inches deep and was very easy to cross without bridging equipment.
I sent the news back to battalion. The attack took place the next morning, and it was not terribly successful. They did achieve their mission, but with many casualties. After the war I was in a German town and I found this sergeant and we drank some beer together and he said, “You know, I want to ask you something. You know that night you sent us out, do you really think we went down to that river?”
And I said, “Yes, I did. I really did.”
He said, “But of course we didn’t. When we went out of the house we were scared to death. We went down from the house about fifty yards, we lay in the grass for about two hours, we all agreed on the story about the river.”
I said, “Okay, thanks for telling me.” That happens much more often, I think, than most people are aware.
November and December 1944 were bad enough, the weather getting worse there in the mountains. Then, in the third week in January, according to the reports, your outfit was hit by what looked like a panzer division.
We saw no tanks, but we saw a lot of troops. I think they were SS. They were very young and angry and National Socialist. That attack actually took place about five hundred yards to my right in a snowstorm. I wasn’t aware of it at all. I had been warned that an attack was very likely, and I was looking out of my slit with my field glasses, and indeed I was seeing troops on the hill far away, German troops in line, moving from left to right, which I reported. The response was, “Well, they’re too far away for us to do anything about it; keep us informed.”
Those German troops were going through our line on my right, but I was utterly unaware of it. I heard a lot of firing to the rear, but you know, you always hear firing in all directions. And you’re not certain where the rear is. It might be your right flank, which might bend back to another adjoining battalion. The line was never given on a map to a platoon leader. The company commander probably doesn’t exactly know where it is.
Still, I would have numerous bright ideas. The Germans would carouse in a house within easy range, right in front of us. And I said to my company commander, “Look, may I get a bazooka and get out there some night and give them a big surprise? We’ll send a shell right through the wall; we’ll kill some of them.” And the guy said, “No, you’ll just stir them up—it will make things worse. If we sit here quietly, we’ll be relieved in three or four days and we won’t have any more casualties, and some new people will come up and deal with the situation.” That’s the sort of thing you get.
So you don’t have much patience with explanations of wartime behavior that depend upon ideology and cause.
If you’ve been in combat more than ten minutes, you know that it is about survival, and it’s about killing in order to survive, and one forgets the presumed ideological motives when one is performing these operations. You’re captured by combat, and the only way to get out of the capture is to reduce the threat to your own personal safety, which is to kill the enemy. That’s what you’re doing in combat.
You did stir up the Germans at some point. When were you wounded?
The first day I was wounded was the first day I was on the line. When I was wandering around innocently and I hadn’t yet heard of the 88-millimeter self-propelled gun, a fragment hit me on the elbow. It wasn’t bad enough to require much treatment, but it happened. The second time was also a self-propelled gun; it looked like a tank. It hit a tree above me. I was lying on top of a bunker with another officer and my platoon sergeant, both of whom were killed by the same shell. And I was hit in the thigh and in the back.
That was the day of the attack of the 7th Army, ending ultimately in the crossing of the Rhine, but by that time I was in the hospital, and I stayed there until the war was over.
And since then you’ve been working up to this book.
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?
No, because I wasn’t writing about myself, really. When I started writing the book, I put in a lot of personal stuff—sort of shocking stuff that I wanted to remind people of and that I wanted to validate by indicating that I myself had experienced it. At one point we were on an exercise at Fort Benning, very near our graduation as infantry officers, the climactic exercise involving paratroops and live artillery and so on, and we were aware of an anomalous explosion up in the air, up in the sky, about five thousand feet. It proved to have been the moment when a shell hit a Piper Cub that was observing artillery fire. Nothing came down but a shoe, with a foot in it, to our horror and astonishment. And I wanted to testify about that.
I originally had that in the book when I was talking about military blunders. I let a friend, a former student of mine, read that text, and he said, “No, that doesn’t belong in there. Either you’ve got to write an objective account or you’ve got to write a personal account. But you can’t bring them together.” So I removed all that stuff.
You wrote in two earlier essays, “My War” and “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb,” as well as in Wartime, that direct experience is crucial to understanding the actualities of war, and you’ve agreed with Walt Whitman that “the real war will never get in the books.”
Eugene Sledge wrote about his experience with the Marines in a book called With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, and it is one of the finest memoirs to emerge from any war. One reason I like it so much is that Sledge, having really fought, knows that even the people back at battalion headquarters, and sometimes company headquarters, have no idea what’s going on three hundred yards to the front and that the troops treat them with something of the same contempt that they reserve for the people at home. They don’t know what’s going on, and not knowing, they make you do things that they would never make you do if they knew what those things meant. Like sending out night patrols, for example, which are hopeless, at least with Americans. The Germans might be able to do them, and the Japanese, but not Americans. We’re not prepared psychologically for that kind of military work, especially in small units. As I point out in the book, the terrible thing about that war is that it was fought by amateurs, necessarily; it was the first war any of us had ever been in, and nobody knew what he was doing. Even General Elsenhower had never fought in a war before. We were all sort of making it up as we went along.
You mentioned Sledge and his comrades’ animosity toward the rear echelons. There’s a line in Harold Leinbaugh and John Campbell’s book The Men of Company K that essentially defines the rear as “anybody whose foxhole is behind mine.”
Well, it depends. Anybody who doesn’t favor an M-1 rifle is a sissy, I would say. If you favored carbines, it indicated that you weren’t a serious combat person and that you were some distance behind the line, because nobody on the line would be content to try to defend his life with a carbine. It’s a tiny little thing; it’s like a .22. So we regarded even the 60-millimeter mortar section as rear area, because they were so unlikely to get shot at, you know. Counterbattery fire might fall near them, and they would have to move, but they were terribly safe. I had men that would have cut off their arms to be sent back to the sixties, because they were three hundred yards behind.
There is a kind of continuity among soldiers, in whatever war, of imputing tremendous abilities and virtues to their enemy.
Well, I’m still doing it with the Germans, for whom I have intense military respect, which I developed on the line in that winter. They’re incredibly good officers. Their junior officers were much better than ours, partly because they were desperate, and they didn’t loaf and they didn’t screw around the way we did. We knew we were going to win the war and they weren’t certain they were going to lose it, until quite a way into 1945, so maybe they fought better.
And they were more disciplined than we were. They took the war more seriously than we did, and they made more out of slimmer resources than we did. We had much more ammunition, we could shoot it off all the time. We never did anything without laying this incredible barrage on the Germans, partly to scare them, partly to assert our own superiority, and we had it in abundance. There was only a week or so when ammunition was short, but if you just phoned in and said, “I’d like a concentration here,” it would come. But the Germans had to proceed much more skillfully to make up for deficiencies, both in men and in material.
Another thing that has helped disguise the true nature of the war was the strictures imposed on the wartime correspondents. Anything that didn’t conduce to the war effort was simply not to be written down.
Right. But much of the censorship was self-censorship, and it was generated by genuine patriotic and moral feeling; it was not really imposed. It was a sense that everybody must get on the team because the issues were so important. And so it’s a sort of honorable censorship.
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.
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. It 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.
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.
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?
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.