Man of War
How combat changed Paul Fussell, and how Fussell changed American letters.
This produced a funny kind of irony —small “i” irony, nothing on the scale of the grand historical irony unleashed by Passchendaele and the Somme —in Fussell’s work. It’s powerfully on display in the essay, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” for example, where he asks of John Kenneth Galbraith, who had argued that the single ordnance incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, was immoral: “What did [Galbraith] 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.” To this, Fussell later adds:
I was a twenty- one-year-old second lieutenant of infantry leading a rifle platoon. Although still officially fit for combat, in the German war I had already been wounded in the back and the leg badly enough to be adjudged, after the war, 40 percent disabled. But even if my leg buckled and I fell to the ground whenever I jumped out of the back of a truck, and even if the very idea of more combat made me breathe in gasps and shake all over, my condition was held to be adequate for the next act. When the atom bombs were dropped and … we learned to our astonishment that we would not be obliged in a few months to rush up the beaches near Tokyo assault—firing while being machine-gunned, mortared, and shelled, for all the practiced phlegm of our tough facades we broke down and cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow to adulthood after all.
One merely notes: He did get his ass shot off. His is a tone of voice that, for being so candid, makes one slightly embarrassed for living in ordinary times. If only the man who has known war up close knows his true self, are the rest of us condemned to a lifetime of the ersatz? Fussell seemed to think so. He once told an interviewer: “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.” The small “i” irony isn’t hard to spot: The writer who so detested the Georgian puffery that drew nations blithely into war was a master of its anti-style, with its abiding implication that only those like me have touched the true face of experience. It’s the voice of Orwell in Homage to Catalonia; a voice so authoritative that it, no less than propagandist hoo-hah and rosy sunrises, can make a fool want to go to war.
In my imagination (I never met him), Fussell had always been what an English professor should be: erudite, frank, worldly, unworldly, acerbic: library and cosmopolis unto himself. When, out of the blue, I was asked to adjunct a nonfiction writing class at Penn, I said yes, even though, as the crow flies, the gig made absolutely no sense. Every week I headed down to Philly on Amtrak, and every week I faced down the same revelation: that instead of the runnels of blood-strewn ditches, my prose is filled with pita chips, iced coffee, Facebook, and procrastination. Nonetheless, we front our losses as they come. I taught my class as honestly as I knew how; I loved my students; and every week, autumn falling over West Philly, I threw the black bag back over my shoulder, still blessedly heavier than itself, and the sum of its contents.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.