In late May, when I learned of literary critic Paul Fussell’s death at age 88, I began writing this column. Then I stopped. There were several reasons, but more than anything, I was busy with a dozen other projects, which is no excuse.
This week, however, in a college class I’m teaching on the literature of war, Fussell came up in the debate on dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. As my students prepared to tackle his essay "Thank God for the Atom Bomb," it was time to complete this remembrance.
Paul Fussell was one of the most influential American academics of his lifetime, and possibly our most angry cultural commentator. The Harvard grad and Penn professor wrote numerous erudite literary studies; several became respected textbooks.
But he was best known for iconoclasm. His groundbreaking 1975 book, "The Great War and Modern Memory," argued that the British experience in World War I influenced Western cultural norms since. Fussell asserted that irony, not romanticism, became the social by-product of war:
"Every war is ironic, because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation, because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends. Eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort, had been shot."
Another watershed was the above-mentioned essay, in which Fussell contended that President Harry Truman’s decision to end the war by dropping the Bomb was met with relief by Americans of that generation, and saved far more lives than it took.
Fussell’s ire was characterized by the psyche of a combat veteran: The reality of war is far uglier than its mythology. This, Fussell believed, was particularly true for the infantryman, who is thrown into a cauldron of brutality and mercilessness that is unthinkable even to other troops just a few hundred yards behind the lines.
Fussell, who suffered terrible wounds in an artillery barrage as a 20-year-old rifle platoon leader in the 103rd Infantry Division, watched many of his men die as he lay bleeding. He recounted his life’s defining experience in the classic 1982 Harper’s article, "My War: How I Got Irony in the Infantry."
"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 blood, tissue 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."
These were the punches Fussell threw; they colored his cynical, sardonic comments for a half-century. He took on the American class system, proclaiming we’re anything but egalitarian. Fussell also panned all things pedestrian and silly, ironically -- there’s that word again -- coming off as an elitist.
Fussell’s critics tried to pigeonhole him, to no avail. Just when someone threw a label his way, he’d dash out something contrary to defy predictions.
This influenced me greatly during my Army service. I read Fussell and concluded politics had no place in uniform. Yet I acknowledged an icy truth behind serving one’s country. You had to be prepared to live through hell, then come home and act as if nothing happened -- all while looking someone’s parents in the eye, and reach back for euphemisms.
So while Fussell never excluded the presence of noble motives, he always showed us the bayonet’s cold steel. I already miss the old killjoy, but his writing lives on. Every American should read "My War" once in their lifetimes -- so much so that I can only close this tardy tribute with Fussell’s own conclusion from that piece:
"And now that those who fought have grown much older, we must wonder at the frantic avidity with which we struggled then to avoid death, digging our foxholes like madmen, running from danger with burning lungs and pounding hearts. What, really, were we so frightened of? Sometimes now the feeling comes over us that Housman’s lines, which in our boyhood we thought attractively cynical, are really just.
"Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young."
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail him at: email@example.com