Interview February 1997

The Other Side of War

Paul Fussell—historian, literary critic, and veteran—wants to change the way Americans remember World War II

We often remember our involvement in the Second World War as emotionally uncomplicated -- we had unambiguous moral purpose, wholehearted involvement, and absolute victory. But Atlantic contributor Paul Fussell remembers it differently in his new memoir, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic (Little, Brown, 1996).

An officer in the infantry during the last months of the war, Fussell saw and experienced the incompetence of American ground troops, the stupidity of their battle plans, and the utter, inexpressible horror of battle. He saw that only the least educated, poorest, or least fortunate soldiers ended up in the infantry, where many were killed unnecessarily. The war turned Fussell into a skeptic and an ironist; his project ever since has been to pick apart Americans' cheerfully euphemistic and nostalgic take on history. Fussell's love of language -- and his search to justify his survival of several close calls in combat -- led him to become an English professor, in an effort, he writes in Doing Battle, to "restore subtlety, civility, and decency after their wartime disappearance." Working toward that same end, Fussell has also become a prolific author. In The Great War and Modern Memory (1977), winner of the National Book Award, and Wartime (1989), he tried to demystify the prevailing notions of the First and Second World Wars as "good" or "cheerful" wars by examining written accounts of infantrymen's experiences. In later books, such as Class (1990) and BAD: or, The Dumbing of America (1992), he turned his eye to American society. Doing Battle is thus a summation of sorts: Fussell describes his own life in the context of the war and the society he has spent his career critiquing.

Fussell recently spoke with The Atlantic's Katie Bacon.

Doing Battle describes how fighting in the Second World War changed you from an innocent boy to an angry skeptic, and how that skepticism has shaped the rest of your life. Was your intention in writing the memoir to change the way people remember the war?

Very much so. I've been an enemy for years of the concept of the "Good War" and of all the sentimentalizing that's done by people who didn't fight it or who profited from it in one way or another. We all profited, but at what a cost. People can forget very readily the pain and misery and death and destruction that the war caused. Sometimes I'm accused of assuming that the war was not necessary, but that's a mistake. It was absolutely necessary. Hitlerism had to be wiped out and so did the Japanese empire, no question about it. But all wars are horrible, and flimsy, superficial war talk is always extremely dangerous.

You argue that H. L. Mencken "was limited by a very American malady: skilled as he was with comic irony, he was deficient in the tragic sense. He didn't respond to the classical understanding that all human life is destined to failure, and that only tragic irony is capable of offering a grown-up vision." How has this "American malady" shaped the way Americans -- both soldiers and civilians -- view the Second World War? What about other wars in which we've fought?

This malady is what makes us want to clean up the Second World War and to turn it into a great merry operation -- which we have succeeded in doing. Americans have also tended to cheerful-ize our behavior in the First World War, which people now tend to remember as very amusing. The fact that we won both wars is terribly important in terms of how we view them. People forget this. By the time the Second World War happened, most other countries had experienced deep Vietnam-like defeats and had had to deal with intellectually and imaginatively. We didn't until the Vietnam War, which helped us grow up a great deal.

We all know that the Second World War destroyed Germany, which had to be rebuilt, but most Americans don't know that it also ruined England -- through wartime expenditure, loss of life, and the damage England suffered in the bombings. It turned England from a powerful, imperial world presence into a third-rate Netherlands. It's just a pitiful little country now, desperately trying to keep up its morale with parades, horse guards, and a Queen. But it is poverty-stricken and pretty hopeless. The war caused that. The point is that you can't fight a war like that, so close to the enemy as the English were, and survive intact. You can win, but you suffer a great deal.

The class line dividing those who generally fought in the Vietnam War from those who didn't has generated much comment and protest since the war. In Doing Battle you argue that an "unintended form of eugenics" took place in the Second World War, too; the less-educated and less-skilled were disproportionately assigned to the infantry and were treated as expendable. How did this fail to attract the country's attention, if not outrage?

Because of the power of wartime propaganda, which gave the impression that everyone was in the infantry. It's fascinating to look at ads that were in magazines in the 1940s and to notice their suggestion that not only was every soldier good-looking, blond, and blue-eyed -- like SS men -- but also that they were educated and intelligent. This simply wasn't true. As numerous historians have pointed out, the Air Force got the best men, the Navy the next, the Marines the next, the Coast Guard the next, and the infantry took what was left. There wasn't much. This also happened, of course, in the Vietnam War, and that's another source of my anger and annoyance. Vietnam was really scandalous. All you had to do was attend a college of chiropractic medicine and you got out of it. The people who fought in it were blacks, Mexican-Americans, and poor boys from the countryside who had no way to escape. Everybody else escaped it, including, thank God, President Clinton, and many others. Robert McNamara lost no sons in the war because he was above it. This should be much better known and agitated about than it is.

Presented by

Katie Bacon is a former executive editor at The Atlantic. Her blog is Eating With Bisi.

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