PRINT January 1990


Liberals at War

Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, by Paul Fussell (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 330 pages, 18 black and white illustrations.

ACCORDING TO PAUL FUSSELL, the picture of frontline life in World War II that was piped back to the Allied homelands was a massive snow job. A vast separation was enforced between what the fighting felt like, smelt like, and what the American and British publics were led to imagine about it. The received information, the censorings and distortions that were pop-fed to the folks at home, in the name of some kind of ideological correctness, are only now becoming clear, 50 years after the conflict’s start—and this enrages Fussell (who fought in France), just as, he argues, it enraged the other soldiers who felt that their lives as combatants would never truly be known and therefore never understood. “In unbombed America especially,” he writes, “the meaning of the war seemed inaccessible. As experience, thus, the suffering was wasted.”

I read Wartime in tandem with Fussell’s earlier book The Great War and Modern Memory, 1975, a discussion of World War I through its literature. The tone of that work is elegiac and poetic; there’s a feel for writing as a help in dealing with the modern condition of warfare, and there’s a poignant sense of the loss of a whole culture. Wartime is different—it’s angry bordering on rant. In Fussell’s view of the struggle, a sort of “optimistic publicity and euphemism” ruled. Generals hired press secretaries; image was as important as results. “Kill-the-Japs”-type sloganeering codified experience into a kind of simplistic shorthand incapable of conveying the war’s chaotic and sickening reality. Fussell deplores the abandonment of eccentricity, wit, and eloquence in the language of World War II, and their replacement with bluntness and conformity, a vulgarization of the mind. A professor of English lit, he’s at his best in his analyses of the verbal treatment of the war, whether by ambitious writers, by officers and bureaucrats, or colloquially by the soldiers themselves, and in his extrapolations from this material as to the way people were thinking and were encouraged to think during the war years.

This literary bent is also responsible, however, for some of the book’s oddity. Discussing the British magazine Horizon, produced by the editor and writer Cyril Connolly in London throughout the Blitz, Fussell remarks that its pages “might convey the impression that the European war was being fought about literature and art history . . . rather than about Poland’s territorial sovereignty or the right of the European Jews to survive.” The criticism is a gentle dig, but Fussell’s own attitudes seem quite close to those he ascribes to Connolly. (If the book has a star, it’s Connolly, who gets more page citations in the index than Hitler.) Fussell is careful to observe that for the Allies, the hostilities had little to do with illuminating and halting the atrocities of Nazism, atrocities exemplified in the concentration camps—a purpose that for many remains the war’s final justification. Yet he seems to repress the fact that the fighting did indeed have this effect. It’s as if World War II’s central horror was what it did to the writing styles of a generation of budding authors.

Fussell does make you realize, however, the serious consequences of this degradation of language. Describing a verbal culture in which the construction and preservation of “morale” outweighed all considerations of accurate truthfulness, he is vulnerable to the charge that he is blind to the strategies, and the sacrifices, that were necessary to fight a war it was necessary to win. (Indeed, when I heard him read from Wartime in New York this fall, he allowed that, were he revising the book, he might expand what material indicates his awareness of this perspective.) What Is resonant for me in his approach, however, is the connection he makes between what happened to the nation’s mental life during the war years and the way we live now. “The postwar power of ‘the media’ to determine what shall be embraced as reality,” he writes, “is in large part due to the success of the morale culture in wartime.” He associates the euphemisms and slogans of the ’40s directly with the practices, and the persuasive pervasiveness, of the advertising industry. It is unsurprising that what democratic dreams were born out of the war were unrealizable in such vocabulary. Furthermore, as Fussell remarks, to convey "to the credulous a satisfying, orderly, and even optimistic and wholesome view of catastrophic occurrences [is] a fine way to encourage a moralistic, nationalistic, and bellicose politics”—the politics we know.

The critical response to Wartime has been instructive. I see Fussell as a liberal in the classic sense—no radical, but sensitive to and outraged by injustice and inhumanity on the occasions when he sees it (there is no discussion of the situation of the black soldier, for example, in the book), and in love with the ideals of a good education and of (particularly English) literature. I suspect that Fussell attacks advertising less because it serves the interests of power than because its language is trivial and stale. Still, in the current political climate his argument has a certain dissident force, and it is unfortunate that his failure to express clearly his opposition to Hitler has left him vulnerable to attacks from the right. I don’t for a moment believe that Fussell is a closet fascist, or that in venting his hatred of the war, he doesn’t care about the horrors the war redressed. Sympathy, in fact, is his long suit—but you may have to give his book a sympathetic reading to give him that credit, and critics on the left tend not to have done that. To them, his ideas seem old hat; they all know war is hell. So the classic liberal, not for the first time, finds himself in a wartime he hadn’t bargained for, caught between opposing armies and missing the firepower to protect his back.

Elaine Reichek is an artist living in New York City.