The Initial Shock . . .

A Conversation with Paul Fussell

copyright, Humanities, November/December 1996 (National Endowment for the Humanities)

Endowment Chairman Sheldon Hackney talked recently with Paul Fussell about the impact of World War I on the twentieth century. Fussell, a retired University of Pennsylania professor, is editor of The Norton Book of Modern War and the author of many books, among them Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays and the award-winning The Great War and Modern Memory.

Sheldon Hackney: I understand that you've got a new autobiography out.

Paul Fussell: Yes. It's called Doing Battle, and it is about the way the war I fought in -- the Second World War, where I fought as an infantry officer -- has pursued me all my life and has helped determine my attitudes and my behavior. The point is, wars are not easily forgotten. Whether they're the First War or the Second War or the Vietnam War and so on, they tend to linger socially and psychologically.

Hackney: Especially for the participants.

Fussell: Absolutely.

Hackney: Let me begin there. In 1975 you were already a well-established, distinguished scholar of eighteenth-century British literature. Then you wrote The Great War and Modern Memory.

Fussell: Yes.

Hackney: While the Vietnam War was coming to a grisly conclusion.

Fussell: I'm glad you mentioned that, because it's really about the Vietnam War as much as it is about the First World War.

Hackney: I wondered about that. In history books, those wars run in a different sequence -- World War I, World War II, and then the Vietnam War. You lived it inside out. You were thinking about Vietnam when you were writing about World War I.

Fussell: As a former soldier, what struck me is the absolutely heartless way that war was being pursued by the Americans, partly I think because of the race problem. The Vietnamese to us were not merely communists, they were nasty little yellow people without souls. It didn't matter how we blew them up or how we bombed them or how we burned their villages and so on. I was very struck by that. And one thing I was trying to do in The Great War and Modern Memory was to awaken a sort of civilian sympathy for the people who suffer on the ground in wartime, and that's really an act that I've been performing, oh, ever since 1945, I suppose.

Hackney: Why did you choose to write about World War I when your experience was World War II?

Fussell: I wasn't ready yet to write about World War II -- which I have done subsequently. It takes ten to twenty years for these things to gel properly.

Also, I was very interested in the Great War, as it was called then, because it was the initial twentieth-century shock to European culture. By the time we got to the Second World War, everybody was more or less used to Europe being badly treated and people being killed in multitudes. The Great War introduced those themes to Western culture, and therefore it was an immense intellectual and cultural and social shock.

Robert Sherwood, who used to write speeches for Franklin D. Roosevelt, once noted that the cynicism about the Second War began before the firing of the first shot. By that time, we didn't need to be told by people like Remarque and Siegfried Sassoon how nasty war was. We knew that already, and we just had to pursue it in a sort of controlled despair. It didn't have the ironic shock value of the Great War.

And I chose to write about Britain because America was in that war a very, very little time compared to the British -- just a few months, actually. The British were in it for four years, and it virtually destroyed British society. I thought that to look at the British version would be intellectually the most profitable.

Hackney: You would argue, then, that the way Americans experienced and thought about and viewed World War II was really shaped by the literature of World War I.

Fussell: Very much. It made it impossible for us to pursue the Second World War with any grand ideas of heroism and glory, because we had already read the debunking literature produced by the First World War.

Hackney: That's why the emblems of the Second World War are Bill Malden's cartoons of Willie and Joe.

Fussell: Exactly. Willie and Joe and similar beaten- down figures.

Hackney: That book, The Great War and Modern Memory, really changed your career.

Fussell: It did. It showed me that I could write about anything I was interested in. By that time I'd had my say about the British eighteenth century and Augustan culture. I thought, I'm going to shift my vision and write about something different. This started to occur as a sort of half-educated, untrained military historian and cultural historian, which I have tried to be since.

When I go to lecture at universities now, I'm always supported by the history department, never by the English department.

Hackney: That's quite interesting.

Fussell: Yes, because the English department seems to be far gone in little local debates about French literary theory, in which I have no interest whatever. I realized that from the very beginning, I have been a sort of cultural or social historian -- I just didn't know it until it emerged in The Great War and Modern Memory.

Hackney: Your various reviewers have used such words to describe you as brash, iconoclastic, certainly ironic, even sarcastic, caustic, skeptic.

Fussell: All correct.

Hackney: So those are badges of honor?

Fussell: For me, absolutely. To acquiesce in the mass murders of the modern world and not to become ironic, indeed sarcastic, about them would be close to traitorous, in my view.

Hackney: But you're not a pacifist.

Fussell: By no means.

Hackney: So this is a different stance with regard to war.

Fussell: Well, I'm a pacifist about certain things. I'm a pacifist in the way I define national interest. I use this example frequently: If the Mexicans decided to cross the Texas border with firearms, I would be down there in a moment with a rifle and a whistle to direct the troops to repel them. If the United States is attacked, I will defend it.

My problem is the United States' defending the interests of the Union Oil Company or the United Fruit Company. Those are not American interests. They're private-money interests, and that bothers me a great deal.

Hackney: But you certainly also see war as a -- necessary evil would be one term --

Fussell: I suppose, or maybe even an unnecessary evil.

One of my favorite quotes is from Hemingway, who said, "Never persuade yourself that war, no matter how necessary, is not ."

Hackney: Yes.

Fussell: It is. Sometimes it's necessary, but it's always awful, and that's my point.

Hackney: In one of your essays, you quote someone as saying that war is and also the punishment of a crime at the same time.

Fussell: That comes from Frederic Manning's book, The Middle Parts of Fortune, which is an excellent account of the British First World War.

Hackney: Why would you say that war is ironic rather than heroic?

Fussell: It's ironic because everybody believes that life is pleasurable, and they should. They have a right to believe that, especially if they're brought up under a Constitution that talks about the pursuit of happiness. To have public life shot through with that kind of optimism and complacency is the grounds for horrible, instructive irony when those generalities prove not true. War tends to prove them not true. War is about survival and it's about mass killing and it's about killing or being killed -- that is, in the infantry -- and it is extremely unpleasant. One realizes that a terrible mistake has been made somewhere, either by the optimistic eighteenth century or by mechanistic twentieth century. The two don't fit together somehow, and that creates, obviously, irony.

Hackney: Is it also true that you find language so inadequate to describe war, disproportionate?

Fussell: Right. And after every war, there's an immense overhaul of language, which in the Western world has created really the cultural and artistic phenomenon of what we call modernism; that is, a paring down of everything to minimal size, including language and ideas of grandeur, and ideas of a possibility of the state making everybody happy, and things like that. That modernism is really a form of skepticism or minimalism. You cut out everything that has deceived you and throw it away, and that leaves you with things like the Eames chair and Picasso and numerous other outcrops of modernism.

Hackney: You think that it is impossible to live that way? You find modernism in that sense -- the stripped-down, convenient version of life -- wrong or missing?

Fussell: It's a jettisoning of high expectations -- I'd put it that way -- the kind of expectations that propelled late Victorian and Edwardian literature and late- nineteenth-century culture in this country.

Hackney: Historians tend to see World War I as the great cultural divide for the West.

Fussell: I would certainly agree. One of the functions of The Great War and Modern Memory as a book was to emphasize that point, to emphasize that after the Great War, everything had to start again in Germany and in Britain and in America, even though we hadn't been in the war very long. People like Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos -- I'm just talking about writers now -- helped to start it again.

Hackney: Can we be more specific about the attitude toward life as becoming more ironic after World War I?

Fussell: Irony in the Victorian age is a pretty rare commodity. You do have Mark Twain, thank God, and you have Ambrose Bierce and a few other naysayers of that kind. But it doesn't determine the course of a whole literature as it does after the Great War.

Hackney: You begin The Great War with some mention of Hardy, and you end there. Hardy, you think, was out of sync with his times or ahead of his time?

Fussell: Well, he was ironic, but his irony was of a certain noble kind. His assumed that society would always go on in the same shape he found it in, whereas after the Great War, everybody knew -- as Pound said when he insisted that the artist must make it new -- everybody knew that a new order of things was necessary, or at least desirable. The new order didn't really take place, and the old order persisted. But it was certainly hacked and ridiculed and satirized and objected to much more than it ever had been before.

Hackney: You refer, in one of your essays about World War II, to what you call the protective screen of irony through which you pass your bleak view of the war. Who are you trying to protect there? The reader or yourself?

Fussell: Myself. It protects one from emotional openness which might destroy or just weaken one, and it turns the experience toward intellect and away from emotion. I learned that by my long immersion in eighteenth-century literature, where the urge is constantly outward from oneself; that is, not to try to undertake deep voyages into the self, but, rather, to escape the self, look out at society, see what's going on, and then comment on it. Irony is a great help there, to protect oneself from self- regarding emotion, which has always been an enemy of mine from the start.

I was brought up on H.L. Mencken, and almost all my work, when it's socially critical, is simply an echo of what Mencken is getting at constantly.

Hackney: But to get to the reality of war, you have to grapple somehow with the horror, do you not?

Fussell: Indeed. And one thing one can't help noticing is the efficacy of religion before the nineteenth century at dealing with these problems and answering some of these unanswerable questions. By the time of the Great War, religion is practically dead. By the time of the Second World War, it's no help at all.

The chaplains that were attached to the infantry that I was in practically never did spiritual work because they knew they'd be ridiculed. What they did was to apply bandages and surgical scissors, assisting the medics and calming people down psychologically. But everybody recognized that religion was no help whatever.

Hackney: Right. In the realm of language, it seems to me also that if you try to deal with the reality of the experience of battle, you get to sentimentality pretty quickly, or to pathos or bathos or some other sentiment. Is it true that irony helps cushion that?

Fussell: Very much. Irony is a great help in helping to penetrate fraudulent language. In the Second War especially, the language became virtually identical with the language of advertising. It was seen through by the troops, who knew what the truth was. It helped to sustain civilian support for the war, which was its purpose, after all.

Hackney: You refer to that somewhere as the problem of euphemism.

Fussell: And euphemism has remained, of course. It's a large part of the tone of public discourse.

Hackney: It is, isn't it? Did we learn that from the war?

Fussell: It's hard to say. It's now practiced on so wide and so official a scale that it's grown out of all proportion to what it was in the war.

Hackney: You write in one of your essays -- your essay "My War" in The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations, which is a wonderful collection -- you say toward the end of that essay, "Those who fought know a secret about themselves, and it is not very nice."

Fussell: They have experienced secretly and privately their natural human impulse toward sadism and brutality. As I say in this new book of mine, not merely did I learn to kill with a noose of piano wire put around somebody's neck from behind, but I learned to enjoy the prospect of killing that way. It's those things that you learn about yourself that you never forget. You learn that you have much wider dimensions than you had imagined before you had to fight a war. That's salutary. It's well to know exactly who you are so you can conduct the rest of your life properly.

Hackney: Even though one might mistake you for a cynic, you are really not. You believe in a lot of these virtues.

Fussell: Absolutely. If I were to run for office, I would talk about those things in public all the time.

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.

Hackney: Turning back to war, one of the ironies -- an irony that historians play upon -- is that Woodrow Wilson's war to make the world safe for democracy did just the opposite: It paved the way for fascism in Italy and nazism in Germany.

Fussell: Exactly. How could he have known? That's the biggest irony of all, that one never knows the future. One pretends to and one hopes to, but one never does. It always astonishes one, I think.

I'm glad you mentioned Wilson, because Wilson is a good president to remember when the right wing starts picking on Clinton because he was never in a war. Nor was Woodrow Wilson. Everybody's forgotten also that Woodrow Wilson was a -- excuse the expression -- university president.

Hackney: Perhaps a disabling experience.

Fussell: No, no.

Hackney: But the unintended consequences of war are greater than the general unintended consequences of most other actions.

Fussell: Absolutely, and much greater than most people realize.

Hackney: Well, Paul, thank you very much for this. I've enjoyed talking with you.