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.

In the Second World War the coverage was much wider. The Air Force, for example, had all kinds of people, including Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable, the latter of whom actually fought in a bomber, which is as dangerous as the infantry. But the Air Force was glamorous and romantic, and that tended to confuse everybody about who was actually doing the fighting. For example, in my experience at universities, which dates from 1951, I have met only two faculty colleagues who fought in dangerous branches of the service. But except for that everyone else seems to have slid into some sort of intellectual position that made it unlikely that they'd be deeply damaged. I met no one who had been in the infantry.

The Great War and Modern Memory came out of your explorations of the limits of language in expressing the violence and terror of war. In Doing Battle, how fully were you able to express the horror of your own war experience?

I don't know, because there's an immense gulf -- it's unbridgeable, philosophically -- between the experience of the senses and the rendering of that experience in black marks on a white page. They're two totally different things. And the success of a writer of a memoir is measured by the degree to which he or she has managed to bridge that unbridgeable distance. All you can do is give an illusion of the experience. I don't know how fully I was able to do that. I did the best I could.

Have you received responses from other War veterans?

Yes, a great many. And most of them say, "I didn't know anyone could describe my experience as well as you have." I'm conscious from the mail I receive of the immense body of men and women my age who are delighted that somebody has addressed the war this way. But I've done this before, in my book Wartime; I just didn't talk about myself. Doing Battle is sort of a validation of that book.

In a search to understand your own war experience, you read the accounts of infantry soldiers in other wars, and especially identified with those of Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon, all officers in the British army during the First World War. What was it that drew you to these accounts?

They had been written by junior officers of the infantry who had, like me, a literary instinct, or a literary bent. They were much better-educated than I was or than I would ever be, but they were writers and thinkers in literary terms.

Have you since found descriptions of the Second World War that you identify with in the same way?

Yes I have, and one of the best is unavailable in this country, which strikes me as typical. It's Journey With a Pistol, by Neil McCallum, about a junior officer of infantry in the British Army who fought from El Alamein through the Alps in Italy. I like it because it's literate, sophisticated, and full of black humor. There's an American work that I've praised elsewhere of which I'm very fond: With the Old Breed by Eugene B. Sledge, about the Marine Corps in Peleliu and Okinawa. It's a superb, honest, heartrending, and brutal account of the fighting in the last months of the Pacific war. There's another one -- not so scandalous in its revelations, but beautifully written -- by Samuel Hynes, who like me is a professor of English. It's called Flights of Passage, and it tells of his experience as a fighter pilot in the Navy. Those three books have had a powerful effect on me, and I think they're absolutely as good as the great memoirs that came out of the First World War.

Throughout Doing Battle you rail against many of our society's closely held beliefs, calling them myths or examples of "moral canting." How do people react to your skepticism?

Well, let me put it in a self-interested way. Intelligent and sensitive people react to it with pleasure; morons hate it. I had an abusive letter just yesterday that objected very much to my "lack of patriotism" and my willingness to traduce the United States. I don't think I do that at all. I like the United States so much that I wish it would grow up.

In a December interview in the Toronto Star you said that you don't read novels, except those written by friends. In Doing Battle, however, you cite several novels that have made a significant impression on you, and you have taught literature throughout your career. Can you elaborate a bit on your feelings about the novel?

I think the novel is essentially a plebeian form. The Book-of-the-Month Club distributes novels, never poems. I get embarrassed by the dialogue in novels; most of it seems to me so talentless, coarse, and cornball that it makes me impatient. I teach poetry and criticism as a result, because I find the intellect more interestingly displayed in those two literary forms.

That said, I do love certain novels. I read every piece of fiction that Philip Roth produces, and there are several other authors whom I follow avidly. But I'd follow them if they were writing something other than novels; there's something about their minds, their impudence, and their distance from public shibboleths that I admire.

I much prefer argument and satire to novels, but if a novel is sufficiently satirical, like Catch 22, I'll read it, or if it's brilliant, like Catcher in the Rye, I'll not just read it, I'll go back to it repeatedly. But the run-of-the-mill novels are not very interesting to me. Of course, my standards are very high. They're supplied by Conrad, by Tolstoy, and by Flaubert. It bothers me that Americans can't produce fiction like that, even though there are plenty of brilliant people here.

What effect did your experience in the war and the feelings it left you with have on your teaching?

It affected me a great deal, because it suggested to me that teaching could do something important: it could change people's minds, it could set them on a life-long course where they would become skeptical, critical, and unreceptive to advertising and public lies. I've always emphasized skepticism in my teaching. Most of the teaching I've done has been the teaching of satire, the teaching of some kind of literature of disclosure that strips away the pretty costumes worn by inherently ugly or unspeakable things.

What are you working on now that you've retired from teaching?

I'm about to start on a short biography of Winston Churchill. I've been asked to do this because Churchill was, like me, made by a war, and he was always a writer, as distinguished a writer as he was a statesman and parliamentarian. I find the connection between his writing and his political behavior a fascinating subject for a short biography. One of my models, though it's a satiric work, is Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, in which he dumps on all the people he writes about. But the length of those character descriptions is very attractive, and it suggests that there's a lot to be done with short biography.