Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War is a natural outgrowth of Paul Fussell’s earlier writing. The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), which was dedicated to a friend of Fussell’s who was killed beside him in France in 1945, discusses the impact of World War I on the modern mind, emphasizing particularly the literary consciousness of England. In an essay “My War,” riginally published in Harper’s magazine in January, 1982, and included in The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations (1982), Fussell described how his experience in World War II transformed him from an innocent, middle-class, nineteen-year-old college student into an infantry rifle platoon leader who was forced to feel that he was living in a world that was neither reasonable nor just. Wartime derives directly from these two works: It explores the impact of World War II, not only on the literary consciousness, but also on the wider use of language in wartime and, more important, on the consciousness of the individual combat soldier who is confronted with the unspeakable horrors of war.
Fussell has a sharp eye for the significant image, for a picture, a scene, or a phrase that can convey a much larger meaning. Thus a newsreel picture of the agile but light and vulnerable jeep which is described as an answer to Hitler’s powerful panzer divisions suggests America’s na’ivete’ at the beginning of World War II and its belief that the war could be won by resourcefulness and skill instead of by raw power. Photographs of the British tanks show them as almost toylike in comparison with the Germans’, and the British and American interest in cavalry at the beginning of the war reveals not only a lack of preparation, but an inadequate understanding of the nature of modern war. An almost opposite misconception was that the war could be won by the new weapon of precision bombing while the actual bombing, Fussell contends, was often far less than accurate. What faith in skill and faith in technology have in common is their reluctance to acknowledge the brutal reality that wars are won by killing. Even more unpalatable is the dreadful truth that blunders and inefficiency in wartime can cause an army to shell or bomb its own troops.
Fussell makes his readers acutely aware of the sad irony that the brutal routine of killing must be carried out by boys in their late teens and early twenties since only they have the physical stamina and the naive belief in their invulnerability to death and injury that combat requires. These young men are absorbed into the anonymity of the armed services like so many replaceable parts in a machine. Although rigorous training is necessary and the discomforts of a soldier’s life are inevitable, Fussell makes a bitter protest against the petty harassment and trivial sadism disguised as discipline that is too often part of military life and that serves no useful purpose in contributing to winning the war. In facing the overwhelming threats of death and in dealing with trivial indignities, the soldier has few resources. One is the recourse to obscene language, which Fussell describes with a certain relish. Another is the consumption of alcohol, especially to help deaden the fear of combat. The final consolation is sex—which was, to the regret of the soldiers, much less readily available.
If Fussell is concerned with the dehumanizing effects of war on the individual, he also regards war as a “perceptual and rhetorical scandal from which total recovery is unlikely.” It is Fussell’s view that the prosecution of a war demands a more or less systematic corruption of our thought processes and of the language in which our thoughts are expressed. This corruption is manifested in various ways. For example, the enemy is thought of and spoken of in terms of dehumanizing stereotypes that allow the combatants to forget that they are killing human beings. Thus the Japanese were stereotyped as particularly vicious animals, while the Germans were represented as having their humanity perverted by a cold-blooded and sinister efficiency. Although Admiral William Halsey could describe the Japanese surrender as a triumph for the “forces of righteousness and decency,” Fussell maintains that the British and Americans in World War II were fighting in an ideological vacuum, unable to articulate clearly what positive goals they were fighting to achieve. World War I, for all its waste of human life, was fought when Victorian idealism and belief still had some credibility, but by the beginning of World War II, belief itself seemed less possible. What could be said to celebrate any nobility in war had been said by the World War I poets; in World War II, writers, faced with the even greater horrors of suicide attacks and death camps on the one hand and the empty glibness of advertising and sloganeering on the other, often chose simply to be silent.
(The entire section is 2011 words.)