Paul Fussell’s enemies are “habitual euphemizers, professional dissimulators,” and the “Disneyfiers of life.” He is in favor of cojones, which is why he ends up in one of his essays liking the Indy 500 in spite of himself, comparing it favorably to the violence of the Falklands War, which is going on while he watches the cars racing past him.

Fussell’s favorite word is, perhaps, “irony.” He believes in bravery, and yet he realizes what bravery stems from and what it demands. He remembers James Jones and Willie Morris touring the battlefield at Antietam with their sons. One of the boys asked why the men had killed each other there, to which Jones responded that they did it “because they didn’t want to appear unmanly in front of their friends.” Fussell comments: “Considering the constant fresh supply of young men and the universal young man’s need for assurance of his manhood, Jones’s answer suggests why reason, decency, and common sense are as unlikely to stop the killing in the future as in the past. Animals and trees and stones cannot be satirized, only human beings, and that’s the reason it’s all going to happen again, and again, and again, and again.” That is tragic, but for Fussell that is no reason to condemn the manly virtues. He is opposed to “humorless critical doctrinaires with grievances (Marxist, Feminist, what have you),” for the very good reason that he is not a Utopian. Fussell believes in honesty, in complexity, and in the reality of human life.

The three best essays in this excellent collection are the title essay and its two supporting ones: “An Exchange of Views” (with Michael Walzer), and the horrifying and salutary “Postscript (1987) on Japanese Skulls.” Each of these essays cuts through obfuscation and cant, and, in “An Exchange of Views,” reveals the conflict between two sensibilities that Fussell designates

as, on the one hand, the ironic and ambiguous (or even the tragic, if you like), and, on the other, the certain. The one complicates problems, leaving them messier than before and making you feel terrible. The other solves problems and cleans up the place, making you feel tidy and satisfied. I’d call the one sensibility the literary-artistic-historical, I’d call the other the social-scientific-political. To expect them to agree, or even to perceive the same data, would be expecting too much.

Fussell not only draws a neat and proper distinction, but recognizes the inevitable and irreconcilable conflict between the two visions. And there is no doubting on which side he places himself Noting that John Kenneth Galbraith believes that the atom bomb shortened the Pacific war by only two or three weeks, Fussell spells out what those two or three weeks would have meant for the Allies:

Two weeks more means 14,000 more killed and wounded, three weeks more, 21,000. Those weeks mean the world if you’re one of those thousands or related to one of them. During the time between the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb on August 9 and the actual surrender on the fifteenth, the war pursued its accustomed course: on the twelfth of August eight captured American fliers were executed (heads chopped off); the fifty-first United States submarine, Bonefish, was sunk (all aboard drowned); the destroyer Callaghan went down, the seventieth to be sunk, and the Destroyer Escort Underhill was lost. That’s a bit of what happened in six days of the two or three weeks posited by Galbraith. What did he do in the war? He worked in the Office of Price Administration in Washington. I don’t demand that he experience having his ass shot off. I merely note that he didn’t.

Fussell did.

Recognizing the true horrors of war as experienced by those actually seeing combat, like the American Marines “sliding under fire down a shell-pocked ridge slimy with mud and liquid dysentery s—t into the maggoty Japanese and USMC corpses at the bottom, vomiting as the maggots burrowed into their own foul clothing,” he also unveils the brutality of war in another way. There is a haunting photograph in his “Postscript (1987) on Japanese Skulls” that was given a full page in Life magazine during the war. It is of a well-dressed young woman sitting at a desk writing to a loved one in the Pacific while she gazes upon a Japanese skull he has sent her as a memento. The picture is shocking now, but it wasn’t shocking then, not because we have changed for the better, but because this was war, real war, war truly understood, and this photograph is a pedestrian record of the hatred and brutality that accompanies war and that is too often forgotten by the euphemists, dissimulators, and Disneyfiers. Fussell’s discussion of Japanese skulls is not about atrocities, but about truth.

But if war is brutal and obscene, it does not follow that all men who participate in war are made brutal and obscene by it. Fussell’s essay on “Modernism, Adversary Culture, and Edmund Blunden,” is a marvelous critique, proving the superiority, to my eyes anyway, of the “Moderns”—those who “can embrace the past and not just feel but enjoy its continuity with the present,” such as Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, Edwin Muir, Louis MacNeice, Conrad Aiken, Elizabeth Bishop, and Edmund Blunden—to the destructive “Modernists”—a category that encompasses, in various ways, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, T.E. Hulme, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, and Edith Sitwell.

Blunden served in the Royal Sussex Regiment during the Great War, surviving two years at the front and winning the Military Cross for bravery. He endured and suffered as much as his fellow “war poets,” but Blunden, unlike many of the others who fell into bitterness, admired both his battalion commander and his wartime sergeant. Moreover, he remained a patriot, did not excoriate the past, and, most characteristic of all, he eschewed “adversary utterance or persuasion, either to advance his critical views, to object publicly to those advanced by others, or to aggrandize his particular kind of poetry.” Here we have perhaps the profoundest irony of all, making Blunden especially interesting for Fussell—the portrait of a man who, having experienced the disjunctive horror of the Great War, and having understood it, still managed to maintain the decorum of and a feeling of continuity with the past. Like Paul Fussell, Edmund Blunden was not one “to turn from the humane and the empirical and the difficult to the doctriaire and the facile,” and for that reason alone, we can thank God for both of them.


[Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays, by Paul Fussell; New York: Summit Books]