A professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania whose specialty is the eighteenth century, Paul Fussell was an infantry lieutenant during World War II. In this book’s title essay, he evokes the ethos of wartime sentiment without flinching from Allied barbarism, then proposes that postwar arguments condemning President Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan characteristically emanate from authors who have never experienced combat. Fussell is not sanguine about humankind’s abilities to operate rationally. Finding much ethical posturing to be self-serving, he defines his own mission as “to mess up the moral picture.”
Fussell’s style shifts between professorial insight and straightforward journalism. In the latter category, Fussell attends the 1982 Indy 500 and investigates a nude beach on the Yugoslavian coast. Elsewhere he evaluates George Orwell, tourism, some ramifications of honest reporting, the pastoral mode in wartime literature, and the demise of chivalry as a poetic conceit.
Recurrent themes suggest Fussell’s preoccupations and unify the disparate subject matter. Motifs include the use of innocence as a literary device, actualities of battlefield experience, and humankind’s capacity for self-delusion through euphemism and out-and-out prevarication. (A flagrant example is MY SISTER AND I, purportedly written in World War II by a Dutch boy. Fussell’s investigation traced its authorship to a New York City editor.) The author honors poetry, fiction, and criticism dedicated to confronting the unpleasant.
Allegiances to the eighteenth century surface in Fussell’s suspicion of all-encompassing theoretical systems and in his commitment to irony as a touchstone of civilization. In the manner of Jonathan Swift’s A MODEST PROPOSAL, one essay suggests that the National Rifle Association adhere to its touted Second Amendment prerogative by assuming the obligations of “a well regulated militia” in the form of perpetual boot camp for its members.
The author of CLASS and THE BOY SCOUT HANDBOOK as well as several scholarly studies, Fussell sometimes suggests H.L. Mencken’s indignations, although his writing is more graceful and his frames of reference less bookish for all their literary poise.