USA: Paul Fussell, warrior against war…-Economist
June 22, 2012
…died on May 23rd, aged 88
The Economist: June 9 2012
IT WAS never clear to Paul Fussell just when his innocence was lost. It might have been that November night in 1944 when his rifle platoon took a wrong turn in a small wood in Alsace. He was 20. The ground was cluttered with strange objects; when the sun rose, he found himself among the open-eyed corpses of Germans who had been killed the day before.
Or it may have been what happened a few months later. His unit ran into an artillery barrage in which pieces of shell ploughed into his leg and back. As he lay there, bellowing with anger, he felt fine red spray falling on him; his buddy Edward Hudson had been so riddled with bullets that the contents of his torso were forced out of the holes in the back of his field jacket. Those who observed the world’s wars from afar, Mr Fussell noted dryly, failed to realise how often soldiers were hurt by the violent impact of pieces of their friends.
War—especially the two “great” wars of the 20th century—had to be sanitised, justified, even glorified, for public consumption. But Mr Fussell made a public career out of refusing to disguise it or elevate it. War reduced human beings to serial numbers, “quasi-mechanical interchangeable parts”, and their opponents to vermin who could be slaughtered with “crazy brutality and sadism”. The second world war, his war, was called “just”, though wars erupted only once all laws and rules had broken down; it was called “good”, and “necessary”, but for those on the ground (a quarter of whom admitted to vomiting or soiling themselves, out of panic, before they went into battle) the war had no meaning, beyond the fact that the quicker they got it over the sooner they could go home.
Home, for him, was the upper-middle-class bit of Pasadena, California, a neat, pretty patch where nothing had occurred to make flabby “Boy Fussell” want to go and kill a German his own age. And then kill more. Unbelievably, though his bad leg still buckled whenever he jumped out of a truck, he was about to be sent to Asia when the war ended. He thanked God thunderously and often that the A-bomb had been dropped on Japan.
Afterwards he relished Samuel Johnson, Pope and Swift, and spent two decades writing and lecturing about them. Yet he was still at war. With a view now honed sharp by all that 18th-century satire, he began to tease out the ironies of recent conflicts: the fact that, for two archducal lives lost in Serbia, 8m young men died; or the fact that the standard-issue New Testament he had carried in his left pocket, purely to ward off bullets, also contained the Ten Commandments, enjoining him not to kill. He admired hugely the poet-officers of the first world war, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, “true testifiers” who could deftly squash the old patriotic lies. In “The Great War and Modern Memory” (1975), he traced comprehensively the way that particular war reversed the ideal of progress, dragging its shadow through literature, music and art, tarnishing for ever such romantic notions as “honour”, “chivalry” and “valour”, and ushering in sceptical modernism in its wake.
Attacking the furniture
That war, at least, had been full of soldiers’ voices, punning or lyrical or obscene. The second war Mr Fussell found strangely silent, even though, as for the first, he spent weeks in the Imperial War Museum in London reading muddied notebooks and letters from the front lines. What his war seemed to coin most readily was coarseness, acronyms and, above all, euphemisms, beginning with the very word “conflict” itself.
Once on that trail—generally, telling the truth and exposing cant—he also found plenty of peacetime targets for his pen. In interviews he was amiable, even sentimental; he laughed readily until, like a bear’s, the gaze set and the broad claw swiped at something he abominated. He mocked Americans for their class divisions and status symbols: the proles for their polyester, the middle classes for their perfect lawns. He decried “comfort stations”, “dining experiences”, fringed upholstery, framed diplomas and collar-gape jackets. In “Abroad”, he lamented that mass-tourism made all places comfortably alike, and dulled the capacity of people to see in unconventional ways. In “BAD: or, The Dumbing of America” (1991) he sustained a book-long polemic against “lite” drinks, processed cheese, stretch limos, turndown service, butterfly corkscrews and all things “inflated by hyperbole and gilded with a fine coat of fraud”. This “great crappiness”, he wrote, was essentially American, leading some of his countrymen to wonder whether he had stayed in Europe, read its books and imbibed its arrogance for too long.
BAD would never end, he declared, as long as naive and impressionable people were ready to be flattered and deceived. And what about war? There the prognosis was every bit as bad. He had hardly been the first to describe it as it was: there was no pussyfooting in the “Iliad”. But plain-speaking made no difference. As long as there were 19-year-old boys, as he had been, and as long as those boys ached to prove their manhood by enlisting, there would be war. The same loss of innocence that had enraged him for life would happen again, and again, and again.