Contributor: Bryan Hiatt
Review Date: 21 Aug 2005
Complete title: Wartime-Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War
Paul Fussell's Wartime is not a book about unit histories or tactics. It is about understanding and behavior (hence the subtitle) expressed in wartime British and American cultures. This means the examination of books (both fiction & non-fiction), poetry, magazine and news articles, advertisements, movies, music, propaganda posters, and more. You name the media of the day, and it makes an appearance in this book.
A longtime professor of English at Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania, Fussell served as an Army infantry lieutenant in Europe during World War II. While Wartime is at times a complicated read, Fussell doesn't spare any of the romanticized or noble notions of war at work in our own popular culture. In the preface he writes:
"This book is about the psychological and emotional culture of Americans and Britons during the second world war. It is about the rationalizations and euphemisms people needed to deal with an unacceptable actuality from 1939-1945. And it is about the abnormally intense frustration of desire in wartime and some of the means by which desire was satisfied. The damage the war visited upon bodies and buildings, planes and tanks and ships, is obvious. Less obvious is the damage it did to intellect, discrimination, honesty, individuality, complexity, ambiguity, and irony, not to mention privacy and wit. For the past fifty years [Wartime was published in 1989] the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty. I have tried to balance the scales" (i).And balance them he does. A sampling of the chapters shows that Wartime follows its own unique path:
Chapter 7: Chickenshit, An Anatomy,
Chapter 8: Drinking Far Too Much, Copulating Too Little, and
Chapter 12: High Mindedness, which includes an excellent discussion of movies and the forming of the "ideal infantry situation" (190), filled with a comic, a cynic (who is converted into a believer in the end), a minority, and a few men from Brooklyn, Texas, and the west, among them one naÃ¯ve soldier. What ties them all together is the tough but brave leader who is killed (qtd. in Jeanine Basinger's The World War II Combat Film, 1986). It's something weâ€™ve all seen, and at the time, it was a vehicle used to push very simple ideals about the war without revealing much of its real horror.
The Chickenshit chapter proves interesting in many ways, as it details some of the unusually petty things soldiers had to endure in the service. Fussell defines it as
"petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige; sadism thinly disguised as necessary discipline; a constant â€˜paying off of old scoresâ€™; and an insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickenshitâ€¦is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything do to with winning the war" (80).The examples that follow certainly back up this assertion, most notably the discussion on expletives used as a way to demean everything in the service, including the food soldiers eat. What makes this book especially good is Fussell's ability to examine competing ideas at work in culture and show how writers, soldiers, or civilians coped with being forced to think and act in certain ways. The High Mindedness discussion (Chapter 12) deals with this concept directly, and if youâ€™ve ever heard the phrase, "either youâ€™re with us or against us," youâ€™ll discover it's been used previously as a means of stifling criticism from the masses. This is one provocative example among many. Wartime is most certainly an academic read, unlike many of the popular histories on the market today. But this is what makes it a book you should read. It's a cultural document, put together by a writer not afraid to tell the truth about his time. Fussell is also the author of other World War II books including Doing Battle, a memoir of his experiences in the Army, and The Boys' Crusade: American G.I.s in Europe - Chaos and Fear in World War Two.
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