In a 1982 essay called ‘My War’ Paul Fussell described how – at the age of 20 – he became a full-time ironist: one who, by means of his experience in combat, had learned to perceive ‘some great gulf, half-comic and half-tragic, between what one expects and what one finds’. And in his book The Great War and Modern Memory, the soldier poets and memoirists who featured most prominently were those who had found themselves stranded in that same ‘great gulf’, learning firsthand how wrong they had been in their imaginings of what awaited them in France.
Although Fussell was indulgent of those younger-brother writers of the Twenties and Thirties who eased their war-complexes by engaging in ‘adversary playfulness’ or by filling their works with images of disjunction and collapse, it was evident throughout that his real sympathies were reserved for the bona fide Great War vets, the front-liners who actually lived through or died in that ‘abyss of blood and darkness’ (Henry James). In one of his most telling sequences, Fussell reported on a visit to the Somme. Finding it, in the early Seventies, ‘a peaceful but sullen place, un-forgetting and unforgiving’, he tried to conjure some picture of what it might have been like, day by day, for a combatant in 1917. His sense of fellow-feeling came through.
When Fussell joined the US Army in 1943, he was an adolescent with vague but rigid notions about military glory, fighting the good fight and splendidly wiping out the ‘mad dogs’ who threatened the correct interests of his divinely-sponsored native land. His own ‘modern memory’ was evidently free of taint. In combat, he believed, he would achieve a virtuous manhood. He might also lose some weight: at junior college, we learn here, Fussell was ‘fat and flabby, with feminine tits and a big behind’.
Two years later, after serving through the dreadful European winter of 1944-5, Fussell looked back on such illusions with anger and contempt. Wounded himself, he saw others slaughtered, and as a leader of men he believed that he had failed. In one attack, thanks to his ‘cowardice’, several of his men had died: a lieutenant, Fussell had lingered ‘as far in the rear’ of his platoon ‘as was barely decent’:
before the day was over I had been severely rebuked by a sharp-eyed lieutenant-colonel who threatened court-martial if I didn’t pull myself together. Before that day was over I was sprayed with the contents of a soldier’s torso when I was lying behind him and he knelt to fire at a machine-gun holding us up: he was struck in the heart and out of the holes in the back of his field jacket flew little clouds of tissue, blood and powdered cloth. Near him another man raised himself to fire, but the machine-gun caught him in the mouth, and as he fell he looked back at me with surprise, blood and teeth dribbling out onto the leaves. He was one to whom early on I had given the Silver Star for heroism, and he didn’t want to let me down.
A little later in the same attack, Fussell’s trusty sergeant was also killed (it is to this sergeant’s memory that he dedicates The Great War and Modern Memory) and when the day finally was over, Fussell’s platoon had been ‘virtually wiped out’ and he was ‘in disgrace’. His own wounds were bad, but not bad enough to keep him from reaching an evacuation hospital thirty miles behind me lines. In the hospital ‘all my affectations of control collapsed, and I did what I’d wanted to do for months. I cried, noisily and publicly, and for hours. I was the scandal of the ward.’
For the next fifteen years (indeed until he had passed the Army recall age), Fussell was afflicted by war nightmares. Like Siegfried Sassoon’s, his dreams were ‘less of terror than of obligation’ – ‘uniquely’, says Fussell, ‘the dreams of a junior officer’:
the war is still going on and I have got to return to the Front. I complain bitterly to myself because it hasn’t stopped yet. I am worried because I can’t find my active-service kit. I am worried because I have forgotten how to be an officer.
This was Sassoon’s dream – and it did not stop until 1939. Fussell’s went away in 1960 or thereabouts but, as he confesses in ‘My War’, such dreams don’t ever really go away.
In his new book, Wartime, Fussell valiantly tackles many sectors of an impossibly vast subject: the literary-critical, the low-cultural, the military-sociological. He handles these approaches well enough, exhibiting formidable know-how in the area of soldierly sex-deprivation, drink-dependence, foulness of mouth. Clearly, it was not only the enemy who scared Fussell back in 1944. Many a peacetime conscript will be ready to advise him that a lot of the ‘verbal subversion’ he cites here does not need a war context to inflame it – all that’s needed is the Army, or perhaps any similarly pushed-around, men-only congregation. To be fair, though, Fussell offers some grisly and unfamiliar archive material, and the cursing perhaps does gain an extra dash of colour when heard against a background of gunfire.
Fussell is sourly entertaining also on the matter of army and government incompetence: huge military fuck-ups that have been played down or suppressed, boastful predictions (about tank-power and ‘precision’ bombing) that turned out to be grotesquely wrong. Whenever possible, he indicates that the Huns always had the edge in cunning, efficiency and common sense and would easily have won the war if they had had a bit more money. And he is consistently, sometimes wittily, scornful of the anaesthetising rhetoric dispensed at all but the very lowest levels of the War Effort, both at home and in the field. Here he somewhat undercuts his own vehemence by having to concede that the ‘unreal war’ concocted by censors, propagandists, morale-builders and the like ‘could hardly have been otherwise’. Even so, by sheer weight of evidence, Fussell can now and then evoke a rather dizzying vision of a language divided into two prevailing styles of discourse – the untruth and the curse – with the one style only rarely getting to make contact with the other.
Viewed as a documentary, Wartime often seems laborious and dutiful: much of the time what we are being offered reads like data for ‘a book about the war’, and Fussell is necessarily uncertain about how much his reader knows. Not often is he inspired to the delicately speculative manner of reading that he regularly brought to bear on texts relating to the 1914-18 war. Even as he browses in the anthologies and periodicals, the government manuals and the wartime speeches, there is a sense of haste and irritation. And the writing is uneven. Sometimes it is lumpishly professorial: ‘But genuine misapprehension about the possibility of aerial bombardment was not the only misconstruction useful to the rationalising intellect unable to confront the messy data of actuality.’ Sometimes it isn’t writing at all, but seems to have sprung from a laughable brochure: ‘Not to mention such popular films featuring notable individual male characters as Goodbye, Mr Chips, Citizen Kane, Wilson, Casablanca and Henry V.’ This is ‘coverage’, and we feel that his heart is not quite in it.
It would appear that, when writing about his war, Fussell finds it difficult to spread himself around. As he once testified, he is ‘really a pissed-off infantryman disguised as a social and cultural commentator’; his point of view is essentially vengeful and embittered. In ‘My War’ the careful reader was expected to detect in Fussell’s critical performances the ‘residual complaints’ of a foot-soldier who, to adapt Norman Mailer’s phrase, had broken his ass for nothing. While ‘affecting to be annoyed primarily by someone’s bad writing or slipshod logic or lazy editing’, Professor Fussell was actually fussing that ‘the Air Corps had beds to sleep in, that Patton’s Third Army got all the credit, that non-combatants of the Medical Administrative and Quartermaster Corps wore the same battle-stars as he ...’
If revelations of this kind make Paul Fussell sound like a modest sort of writer, they should not. Nor should they give the impression that Wartime, in any of its aspects, is a nutty or even eccentric sort of book. To be an ‘infantryman’, in Fussell’s scale of things, is to be better placed than almost anyone to bear witness on the great issues of our time. In The Great War and Modern Memory he quotes with enthusiasm David Jones’s dodgy-sounding dictum that ‘the artist in man is the infantryman in man ... all men are aboriginally of this infantry, though not all serve with this infantry ... continued employment “away from the front” has made habitual and widespread a “staff mentality”.’ In Jones’s peacetime world (Jones wrote this in 1959), the staff mentality is evinced by critics and reviewers. Fussell explicates: Jones’s point ‘is that to make art one must hurl oneself into it, get down into one’s material, roll in it, snuff it up: know it, in fact, the way troops know fighting, rather than the way the Staff conjectures about it.’
In Wartime Fussell is required to suppress his infantryman’s indignation for long stretches, but he is always at his most relaxed and purposeful when he is rolling in the blood and guts, snuffing it up and so on, and when he is getting us to roll there too. In World War Two, he says, ‘what drove the troops to fury was the complacent, unimaginative innocence of the home fronts and rear echelons.’ In peacetime, what drives Fussell to fury is any version of the war that does not concede its overall irrationality. America, he says, ‘has not yet understood what the Second World War was like’ – the whole experience has been sanitised, Rockwellised, even Disneyfied. Until America does achieve such understanding, it will never be able to ‘re-interpret and re-define the national reality’ nor ‘arrive at something like public maturity’. So long as a publication like the picture-book ‘Life’ goes to war can be accepted as war history without once showing an ‘American dismembering’, the country can anticipate yet more Vietnams.
It could be argued that public awareness of the horrors of Vietnam somewhat weakens the need for Paul Fussell to rub our noses in the horrors of the Hurtgen Forest. Fussell’s answer to that, quite rightly, would be to rub a little harder. Some of the war memoirs he has assembled here, from fugitive publications, from the vaults of the Imperial War Museum, and from more obvious recent sources like Studs Terkel’s The Good War, are a good deal more powerful and persuasive than much of the so-called war literature that we know from our anthologies – a literature in the main written by non-combatants. Only Keith Douglas – in places, in his prose – comes near to rivalling the raw repulsiveness that distinguishes the war memoir of one Eugene Sledge, a US Marine who fought at Peleliu and Okinawa. Sledge gives us the ‘bitterest essence of war’, with no literary frills, but even he had to wait until 1981 before he could tell the world about ‘the most repulsive thing I ever saw an American do in the war’. And here he is describing a Marine assault on a ‘ridge’ which was actually ‘a stinking compost pile’ made up of half-buried Marine and Japanese bodies:
If a Marine slipped and slid down the back slope of the muddy ridge, he was apt to reach the bottom vomiting. I saw more than one man lose his footing and slip and slide all the way to the bottom only to stand up horror-stricken as he watched in disbelief while fat maggots tumbled out of his muddy dungaree pockets, cartridge belt, legging lacings, and the like ...
We didn’t talk about such things. They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans ... It is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane ... To me the war was insanity.
If this is what Fussell means by ‘real’ writing about war, we might expect him to have little time for home-front ironists like Henry Reed or look-the-other-way aesthetes like Cyril Connolly or Osbert Sitwell. As it turns out, and this is a paradox that runs throughout the book, his hostility to America’s ‘unironic’ temper, to its earnestness and sentimentality, is of such depth and ferocity that it leads him to over-value almost any piece of writing that is not actively soporific or mendacious. Like many another anti-American American, he is actually a bit of a sucker for that good old British ‘poise’. Thus Osbert Sitwell’s ‘rococo’ prose is seen as near-heroic in its resistance to ‘wartime mono-syllabism and primitive predication’, and we are seriously asked to shed a tear on Sitwell’s behalf when we read that ‘from 1941 to 1949, he experienced the painful wartime dearth of clothing, cigarettes and gasoline, as well as coal for heating and gas for cooking. And worse, he suffered powerfully from the abeyance of eccentricity, complication, variety, subtlety, irony and sensitivity.’ A bit more of all that deprivation and Osbert would have turned into an American. On the subject of Cyril Connolly and Horizon (not, one would have thought, a periodical that did much rolling in it or snuffing of it up), Fussell’s dogface softens into near-whimpering appreciation: Connolly, we are told, produced in wartime ‘around 10,000 pages of exquisite poetry and prose’ in a publication of ‘almost unbelievable excellence’. Tell that to the Marines.
Paul Fussell’s book from time to time seems hasty and ill-judged. Andrew Sinclair’s War like a Wasp reads as if it was composed in an air-raid shelter, under heavy bombardment. On its jacket we read that Sinclair’s ‘involvement with his childhood and adolescence in Britain has led to his writing of War like a Wasp’, and although he was but ten years old in 1945, his narrator’s manner is indeed bright with insiderism as he treks around Fitzrovia with Tambimuttu, Julian Maclaren-Ross, Dylan Thomas and the gang. ‘Senses were heightened, perceptions changed, new visions possible,’ he burbles, but even he finds it hard to convince himself that this heady atmosphere produced much in the way of even half-decent poetry and prose. Sinclair’s critical method is that of the impresario. A phrase like ‘As Donald Bain put it’ or ‘In the words of Gaven Ewart’ will be used to introduce a large hunk of the text in question, and that’s that. Sinclair’s real excitement is in recalling what a thrill it was (or must have been) to bang in to the old pub every night and know for certain that you would run into ‘the ageing art critic Herbert Read’, ‘the sailor poet Alan Ross’, ‘the fugitive exile Arthur Koestler’, ‘the ageing novelist Hugh Walpole’ – or better still, Keith Douglas (‘the best serving poet in Egypt’), Alun Lewis (‘the best of the Welsh war poets’), Edwin Muir (‘the best of the Scots poets’). Alan Ross, by the way, is lauded as ‘the supreme recorder of the convoys’. This is literary history done over as pubchatter, almost cynically superficial. In Fitzrovia, they would have loved it.