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Oh What a Lovely War!

Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War

by Paul Fussell
Oxford University Press, 330 pp., $19.95

Living Through the Blitz

by Tom Harrisson
Schocken, 372 pp., $11.95 (paper)

The Battle of Britain: The Greatest Air Battle of World War II

by Richard Hough, by Denis Richards
Norton, 397 pp., $29.95

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 headquarters promoting their general and his arm of the service; hence the war correspondents who considered their job to be winning recognition for the outfits in their zone instead of telling what the war was really like. Hence the displeasing memo Air Marshal Arthur Harris wrote to Portal, the chief of the British air staff, at the time of the Normandy invasion, complaining that “grave injustice” was being done to his bomber crews when all the publicity centered upon the army and navy.

Americans and Britons, according to Fussell, were conned by a gigantic deception of the nature of the war. At the outset the high commands of both countries were blind to what modern war would be like: like the Poles they commissioned cavalry regiments, and throughout their armies were equipped with less efficient weapons than the Germans’. Blunder after blunder was hushed up or explained away. The public was led to believe that there might well be no need to invade Europe: the bomber offensive would finish Germany. But so-called precision bombing was a farce: most of the bombs over the years fell in the countryside, and Harris interpreted the “evidence” of the offensive so deviously that industries were said to be obliterated when they continued to function.

The American heavy bombers were no different: they probably killed more American than German soldiers in Normandy; and “the destruction of Dresden was as little rational as the German shooting of hostages to ‘punish”’ the people of a town or region for acts of resistance. Hiroshima was a brutal act of revenge though caused in part by the Japanese “madness” in refusing to surrender. Small wonder, says Fussell, that bomber crews, who suffered such losses, wore lucky charms. “In the midst of calmly committed mass murder, reliance on amulets will seem about the most reasonable thing around.”

The troops were fed myths about the enemy. The Japanese were stereotyped as wild beasts, the Italians as comedians, and the Germans as sinister automatons whose minds were diseased. Conversely, the stereotyped American soldier was an upright Anglo-Saxon, never Italian, Jewish, or black. Indeed the plight of the Jews hardly featured during the war. Sharp as ever, Fussell picks up the fact that for many of the young British public school boys the war was like being back at school: passing exams, facing reports, anxious like new boys of doing the wrong thing, and regarding Montgomery as a particularly alarming headmaster. The enlisted men were brutalized by chicken shit and hazing. More than one intellectual complained that he joined the army to fight fascism and found it full of fascists.

Enlisted men reacted by developing a formidable scatological rhetoric, and some of Fussell’s most entertaining pages record the riper versions of American and British ingenuity. Four-letter language was a way of regaining self-respect when a sergeant major screamed at a soldier who marched into church still wearing his cap, “Take yer fucking ‘at off in the ‘ouse of Gawd, cunt.” (My own favorite story was of the regimental sergeant major in the Brigade of Guards instructing a bearer party before a military funeral, the last words of his harangue being roared as if a word of command: “When carrying the coffin let the face assume a melancholy harspect—such as will please the relatives—and the corpse HAS A RIGHT TO EXPECT.”) Fussell has a masterly chapter on demotic traditions of speech deploring the absence of girls and the need for alcohol, the use of prepositions, as in “he put himself in for the Bronze Star,” acronyms, abbreviations, imaginary characters such as Kilroy, obscene songs and variations of the word shit, as in Sad Sack or shower.

The obsession with morale bred a disagreeable kind of high-mindedness which exhorted intellectuals to see the war in terms of absolute good and evil. Archibald MacLeish denounced Hemingway and Dos Passos for the harm their antiwar books had done, and Carl Sandburg and others wrote claptrap about freedom: only Edmund Wilson among intellectuals rebuked MacLeish. There was a general flight, says Fussell, from “complexity, irony, skepticism and criticism”: a mood that did not change “until Vonnegut, Heller, and Pynchon succeeded in proposing an attractive alternative.” Even E. M. Forster is chided for praising in radio talks on the BBC Steinbeck and Thornton Wilder and saying that the Greek tragedy that came closest to his heart was Antigone, “with its entirely unironic moral message about resistance to unjust power.” He should have chosen Oedipus the King, “with its paradox and moral complexities and irony.”

But to this there was one notable exception: Cyril Connolly made no concession to the war in editing Horizon. He mocked the war or ignored it, and cared only about publishing work of the highest quality by the known and unknown. (Fussell is right about Connolly’s determination not to allow the war to corrupt his judgment. I remember him and Philip Toynbee sitting in the Gargoyle bar and intoning, “We hate the war. We hate the class war, we hate the sex war, we hate the war.”)

Fussell also praises the standard of talks on the BBC, the reprints of Victorian novels, Penguin paperbacks, and John Lehmann’s Penguin New Writing. He records the excellent American arrangements for sending books to soldiers, Allen Tate and John Peale Bishop’s 544-page anthology of modern American writing, and anthologies by Somerset Maugham, Klaus Mann, and Clifton Fadiman. (He neglects to mention in Britain George Rylands’s remarkable Shakespeare anthology, The Ages of Man, which fitted into the thigh pocket of army combat uniforms. Perhaps too he might have mentioned the London theater, the H. M. Tennant productions of Shakespeare with Olivier, Gielgud, and Peggy Ashcroft, or Ralph Richardson and Olivier at the Old Vic in Peer Gynt.)

It is typical of Fussell’s acuteness to suggest that the baroque prose of Osbert Sitwell and the dandyism of Julian Maclaren-Ross and Cyril Connolly’s nostalgia for truffles and the smell of baking brioches were reactions against the anonymity of the armies “in which men were reduced to a number on an identity disc” and against the rationing and privation in Britain.

Nevertheless such gestures did nothing to raise the curtain of secrecy drawn over the fighting. The public was never shown pictures of bodies blown apart, men with their guts hanging out, testicles mangled by mortar fire, and legless trunks. Did the famous Ernie Pyle ever record that on stooping down to pick up a finger a soldier found himself handling a penis? To one glib reporter whose questions drew sullen looks and silence, an infautryman finally said, “Tell ‘em it’s rough as hell. Tell ‘em it’s rough. Tell ‘em it’s rough, serious business. That’s all.”

Censoring stopped reporters from telling the truth. Was George VI, visiting formations before D-day, told that every police station and detention camp was packed with deserters? Fussell finds the most telling memoir to be one by a marine, Eugene B. Sledge, a man of transparent simple decency. He prays aloud in battle and is not cynical about Bob Hope’s performances or about medals or citations; but he is revolted when he sees his unit mowed down by machine-gun fire on Peleliu and again when they fight among heaps of stinking corpses and excrement on Okinawa.

Fussell believes that no rational being can condone what was done in the war by the Allies or by their enemies. Allow your reason to consider the reality of war and it is at once evident that it was an act of madness. He quotes a young British officer:

Annihilation of the spirit. The game does not appear to be worth the candle…. [It] is not a moral war…and to believe it is anything but a lot of people killing each other is…to misread man’s instinct to commit murder.

In War and Peace Tolstoy asked the same question: “Why did millions of people kill one another when it is known since the world began that it is physically and morally bad to do so?” He concluded that no explanation was satisfactory: men are forced to act in this way by some predetermined scheme of causation and they then invent rationalizations to justify their conduct. They pretend their rulers gave commands, or generals fought battles according to a strategic plan, when the rulers wanted no such consequences and once a battle was joined no order was ever carried out. Both Tolstoy and Fussell consider that war in reality is collective madness: any other view of reality is unacceptable because it is a rationalization of what we would like to believe.

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