Friday, May 07, 2010

Paul Fussell's Wartime

Paul Fussell is a critic and essayist rather than a historian, which makes Wartime, one of his World War 2 books, quite different from the others you have read. There are no glowing portraits of military genius or campaigns well fought. Fussell is more interested in how much war sucks. To give you a sense of the book, one of the chapters is titled "Chickenshit, An Anatomy," which we now would probably call bullshit. It generally was used to describe arbitrary abuses of power by very small men. It could be at the level of annoying, if cruel, such as denying leave thanks to a poorly made bed, or it could be evil, such as needlessly sending a patrol to their dooms, because a commanding officer didn't care for their leader.

The book details all the little ways that war destroys civility, society and the individual. He describes the propagandizing that developed into the Greatest Generation concept. The public was rarely given the real story. He also argues that World War 2 was even more dehumanizing than the trench warfare of the First World War. In the second, governments went even further into dehumazing and de-indivualizing soldiers so that they became just another replacement part or machine.

This sounds like grim reading and it is, but Fussell's outstanding prose and lighter moments, like what books people read make it more bearable. He attributes the explosion in paperbacks after the war to wartime paperbacks distributed to servicemen. I will now need to read his Great War and Modern Memory, which looks at the literature of that war.


Citizen Reader said...

I must read this book immediately. I remember reading something else of Fussell's and loving him, but it's been a long time.

Tripp said...

This one is so you, it's crazy. The only reason you might not like it is if you don't care for Fussell's voice, but it sounds like you already dig it!

Brack said...


I'm shipping you The Great War and Modern Memory. Also, check out Fussell's take on the American socioeconmic strata in Class. Some have dismissed it as mere pop sociology, but I though it was spot on. Besides, it gave us the phrase "prole drift."

Tripp said...

oooo, thank ye!

I liked Class, but read it long, long ago, maybe 1988? I thought it had a whiff of satire in it, but I will need to re-read to be sure.

Brack said...

If by satire you mean “a literary work in which vices, follies, stupidities, abuses, etc. are held up to ridicule and contempt,” then I would say so. z.B.:

“There are psychological reasons why proles feel a need to wear legible clothing, and they are more touching than ridiculous. By wearing a garment reading SPORTS ILLUSTRATED or GATORADE or LESTER LANIN, the prole associates himself with an enterprise the world judges successful, and thus, for the moment, he achieves some importance. This is the reason why, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway each May, you can see grown men walking around proud to wear silly-looking caps so long as they say GOODYEAR or VALVOLINE. Brand names today possess a totemistic power to confer distinction on those who wear them. By donning legible clothing you fuse your private identity with external commercial success, redeeming your insignificance and becoming, for the moment, somebody. For $27 you can send in to a post-office box in Holiday, Florida, and get a nylon jacket in blue, white, and orange that says, on the front, UNION 76. There are sizes for kids and ladies too. Just the thing for the picnic. And this need is not the proles' alone. Witness the T-shirts and carryalls stamped with the logo of The New York Review of Books, which convey the point "I read hard books," or printed with portraits of Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven, which assure the world, "I am civilized." The gold-plated blazer buttons displaying university seals affected by the middle class likewise identify the wearer with impressive brand names like the University of Indiana and Louisiana State.”

I get the sense that Fussell wrote Class almost as a lark, and that he very much enjoying taking the piss out of everyone up and down the ladder. Here is how Fussell explained his motive in an interview with the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities:

“Hackney: You have also written about American class, which is not something Americans are very much aware of.

Fussell: I'll tell you why I did that. Most Americans, in their sweet innocence, think that class has to do with money. But a glance at Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley will indicate that it has very little to do with money. It has to do with taste and style, and it has to do with the development of those features by acts of character. That was one of my points: to try to separate class from mercantilism or commercialism.”