Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War
Living Through the Blitz
The Battle of Britain: The Greatest Air Battle of World War II
In 1963 Joan Littlewood staged in London’s East End her antimilitarist musical Oh What a Lovely War! In the approved style of Robert Graves and the First World War poets, the generals guzzled and swilled as they sent the troops in the trenches to their deaths. But to make the invective work against the upper classes, politicians, profiteers, and arms manufacturers she set the scene in the first, and not the second, world war. Most people on the left considered the Second World War a just war—at any rate after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union—a war against German and Japanese fascism and militarism.
Apparently she was wrong. Paul Fussell says it is high time the Second World War was demythologized. It is so generally accepted that the war was good that innocent people might think it was not such a bad thing after all.
It’s thus necessary to observe that it was a war and nothing else, and thus stupid and sadistic, a war, as Cyril Connolly said, “of which we are all ashamed,…which lowers the standards of thinking and feeling.”
It brutalized the participants, the propaganda was as sickening as in 1914–1918, and the deceptions imposed upon the people prevented them from understanding even to this day what the war was really like. “As compared even with the idiocies of Verdun, Gallipoli or Tannenberg, World War II was indescribably cruel and insane.” To sustain this argument Fussell examines what people wrote at the time, particularly the fighting soldiers, and shows how different their experience was from the way news, features, handouts or the movies, theater, and literature depicted it. Anyone who has read his The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) will guess that the documentation in his new book is voluminous, marvelously arranged and analyzed.
Fussell was first to admit that there were very few of the heroics or patriotic ecstasies of 1914. Both the French and British soldiers who went off to fight in 1939 marched in silence. Virtually all my contemporaries were determined that we were not going to be fooled again about making the world safe for democracy. One of them, training with Richard Hillary to be a pilot, used to infuriate the station commander by pinning red tape around any notice that he considered was bullshit. We were determined not to lie about the war or our emotions. Stephen Spender was too honest to mouth abstractions and say he was fighting for them but he did know what he was fighting against. As Fussell says, no one was much inspired to fight for the Four Freedoms. The troops fought to finish the job and come home.
But Fussell argues that this disillusionment made matters worse. To keep up the morale of the troops and the civilian populations was made much more difficult. Hence the euphemisms such as Montgomery calling a battle “a party”; hence the plethora of badges, flashes, medals, interservice rivalry; hence the public relations officers who encumbered every major…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.