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Oh What a Lovely War!

Fussell has a right to take this view. He was a lieutenant commanding a rifle platoon in the 103rd Infantry Division and was badly wounded. It is like the view taken by some young officers after the First World War, for instance by Ralph Partridge, Lytton Strachey’s love, who became a pacifist and, with his wife, Frances, remained one during World War II, refusing to admit that any indignity or degradation could justify the slaughter of millions.1

And yet this is a view of reality that no historian can accept. It is true that both America and Britain each entered the war unprepared. But then they did not choose to pay in peacetime a large general staff to train dozens of divisions and study the tactics of battle in Europe. Little wonder they had inferior tanks and guns. The German general staff had the Revanche Krieg in mind since 1919, and planned accordingly. The British army was trained to police the colonies. As always the British had to learn their lessons in war and as always they lost the first battles. The chief of the British army staff, Alan Brooke, like Wellington, could not find generals competent to command armies and corps: there were few enough competent to command a division. There were obvious blunders. But Dieppe was not a blunder. It was a badly conceived operation costing the Canadians terrible casualties. Without it and the landings of Salerno and Anzio, the invasion of Normandy would have been a shambles. The invasion exercise off Slapton Sands was certainly a disaster. Nine German E-boats made a daring sortie from Cherbourg and sank American landing craft drowning 750 soldiers and sailors. Fussell calls it “one of the most melodramatic blunders of the war.” But it was not a blunder—it was a brilliant German coup, no more a blunder than the Germans being taken by surprise when the British raided Saint-Nazaire.

No wonder the Allies were concerned about morale. Their soldiers, sailors, and airmen were cynical about wars to end war. Montgomery knew he was commanding a citizen army brought up on stories of the mass slaughter at the Somme and Passchendaele. The troops did not want to be killed. William Strang, who rose to be head of Britain’s Foreign Office, thought the soldiers of the Second World War less brave than those of the first. There were of course crack units and regiments, but Montgomery realized his first task was to persuade men that, though some of them would die, as few as possible would do so since he had made a foolproof plan and deployed immense superiority in aircraft and artillery.

As one reads Fussell’s book, one begins to wonder what precisely is being said. Is he saying that it is always more important to be truthful than to encourage one’s men and keep up their morale? Or that war correspondents should have been allowed to report the desperate weariness and trauma, the carnage and mutilation of the men who were actually fighting? The press today in Britain does not print pictures of corpses decapitated and smashed in car or rail accidents; and in the Lockerbie air disaster the press was critized for not putting the feelings of the families of the dead first. Then again Fussell writes:

The world was laughing at Italy, and yet the Italians were sensibly declining to be murdered. The Allied soldier couldn’t help wondering that if contempt and ridicule are the price of staying alive, perhaps the price is worth paying.

That passage suggests that he thinks Falstaff is speaking the truth when he says:

Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No…. What is honour? A word…. Who hath it? He that died a’ Wednesday, Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No…. Therefore I’ll none of it, honour is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.

Yet would not Lieutenant Fussell, however little he thought of honor, have despised himself if he had decided to live by Falstaff’s morality. Fussell quotes the US Officer’s Guide, which states that pride prevents men from giving way to fear. The whole trick, says the guide,

is to seem what you would be, and the formula for dealing with fear is ultimately rhetorical and theatrical: regardless of your actual feelings, you must simulate a carriage which will affect your audience as fearless, in the hope you will be imitated.

People have always acknowledged that such “hypocrisy” is bravery. In a crisis men and women keep up the spirits of those about them by this device. Does Fussell remember the young officer at Waterloo whose regimental squad was being pounded by Napoleon’s artillery? He and those around him were spattered by the brains of a bugler decapitated by a canon shot, and he drawled, “How extremely disgusting.” The soldiers laughed and their morale rose.

In reading Fussell’s book you feel at times that the professor of literature has taken over. It is fair to compare the lively demotic talk of the troops and their calculated use of obscenity to deflate authority with the overblown rhetoric of the morale builders, or with Churchill’s stale radio oratory and MacArthur listening “with thirsty ear for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille.” But Fussell spoils his case by hyperbole. “If one enemy was the Japanese, others almost as destructive, wartime made clear, were chastity, claustration, puritanism, repression, and hypocrisy.” Sexual deprivation produced pressures caused by “a bizarre context of male bonding.” Almost as destructive? And what is one to make of the passage where he argues that soldiers were in essence experiencing “an essential artistic action unattempted by either Eliot” in the Four Quartets or Edith Sitwell in “Still Falls the Rain,” when they sang sentimental songs like “In Apple-Blossom Time” or “I’ll Be Seeing You”?

In singing those two typical wartime songs, or identifying himself with the voice that sings, the soldier experiences an essential artistic action unattempted by either Eliot or Sitwell in their two works: namely, throwing himself into a voice and character not his own—female, in these songs…. Back home Cleanth Brooks and other New Critics were insisting that the most interesting poetry often involves this sort of dramatic situation, often achieves “irony” by revealing some imaginative distance between the maker of the poem and the voice that speaks in it. The troops were by no means critics, but in their way they were celebrating this poetic principle forgotten for the moment by most of their literary betters.

Is not this somewhat strained, if not pretentious? And if one wants an example of a mind determined not to be penetrated by wartime propaganda, are not the Four Quartets more impressive than Horizon? I can still recall the excitement of reading them as each came out in paperback and thinking they were noble and profound.

Yet is there only one kind of reality in war? Certainly one work of literature Fussell must know suggests otherwise. Troilus and Cressida is about reality. Shakespeare asked what was reality in love and war, but he did not come up with a single answer. He tells us that people interpret war in different ways. There is the version of the worldly wise chief of staff Ulysses, all of whose stratagems miscarry. There is the interpretation made by the brutal fighting commander Achilles, who sneers at the general staff and fights dirty. There is Hector, who fights clean for an ideal. There is the romantic Troilus, who believes true love can never fail, and Cressida, who would like to be true but for whom love is sex. There is Thersites, the foreign correspondent, who sees through everything and considers that war in reality is simply about a whore and a cuckold. Many directors in the theater, like Fussell, accept Thersites’ interpretation of reality: but it is not Shakespeare’s.

There have been many other attempts to demythologize the war, notably by revisionist historians of one persuasion or another. But a recent contribution by John Grigg, the British political commentator and biographer of Lloyd George, is especially interesting because he contrasts the second unfavorably with the First World War.2 Grigg denounces the left-wing thesis that whereas the first was a vulgar capitalist war fought solely about the balance of power, the second was a revolutionary war on behalf of democracy. He rejects the view that the first was a war in which jingoism flourished and men were herded to their death, the second was a “people’s war,” economical in casualties. He argues that the spirit of 1914 was nobler than that of 1939. In 1914 blood sacrifice and atonement were invoked because people convinced themselves they were fighting a war to save the entire human race from war: whereas in 1940 Britain behaved badly to the Norwegians, and shamefully to the French, who defended the perimeter and enabled the British army to escape through Dunkirk, they were more war-weary in 1945 than they were in 1918, despite their terrible losses.

In fact, so it seems to me, the British fought both wars to preserve the balance of power: but in both they were inspired by ideals, and if the ideals ended by looking shop-soiled and open to ridicule, that is what always happens in war. But that does not mean that the ideals were foolish.

The great question you expect Fussell to ask he never does. If war is so bestial, should America have gone to war after Pearl Harbor and should the French and the British have decided to stop Hitler in 1939? It really will not do to say with a sneer, “Ask Poland.” Poland in its tragic history is so often the pawn, and the pawn was sacrificed in 1939 when the gamble of a guarantee to preserve its frontiers failed. But the issue in Europe was whether the whole continent was to fall under German hegemony—and, so it turned out, whether any Jews would be allowed to survive, and whether the Nazis would be able to carry out their racial ideology under which other groups would be eliminated or enslaved.

It can be argued that the issue of the balance of power was the same in 1914. But the First World War still appears to have been an unnecessary war that could have been averted by more skillful statesmanship. In 1939 war could have been averted only by capitulation to Hitler, the one head of state who was prepared to risk, and indeed welcomed, a major war. And in the Pacific, is it conceivable that America after Pearl Harbor should have written a diplomatic note to Tokyo apologizing for the provocative position of its fleet? If Fussell thinks that, he ought to say so.

To this Fussell might reply that he is not writing a history of the war but revealing its reality. Has he done so? As might be expected the fiftieth anniversary of the British declaration of war on Germany has produced a variety of books, one even chronicling the last “season” when debutantes were presented at court and the rigors of life at balls five nights a week were broken by chaste weekends.3

Richard Hough and Denis Richards’s account of the Battle of Britain is stronger stuff and starts with the creation of a system of air defense and the development of the Spitfire and Hurricane fighters. Until September 6, 1940, the Luftwaffe attacked airfields and radar installations. They lost 670 aircraft. The British fighter command lost four hundred but it was slowly running down. More fighters were lost than production could replace; pilots who had qualified only that week and lacked any training in deflection shooting were being sent as reinforcements. They were shot down by German pilots who had learned to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Experienced British pilots were so scarce that they had to move from their own squadron to stiffen other squadrons decimated by casualties: that was bad for squadron morale.

But the Luftwaffe had not knocked the British out of the skies, and the high command decided to make a fatal change in tactics. In revenge for the British bombing cities in Germany Hitler ordered London to be attacked, arguing the fighter command must come up in strength to defend the capital. Hitler was not bluffing. He intended to invade Britain and postponed the invasion three times. But the last time he postponed it indefinitely. On September 15 the largest ever German formations were broken up. The raids went on but by October 1 the Luftwaffe had abandoned day bombing and bombed only at night.

Hough and Richards handle the tactics of both sides and the controversies of the battle in masterly style, but the reality of this war was very different from the long slog of infantry fighting that Fussell sees as reality. The pilot causalties were appalling. During the battle replacement pilots lasted on average only eleven days after joining their squadrons. Every night familiar faces and friends disappeared from the mess. “Come on in,” said a commanding officer to a new pilot, “and meet the 145th Squadron—great chaps, both of them.” The British pilots were outnumbered: twelve fighters would engage a force of twenty to forty bombers with one hundred MC110s stacked up above them. Their airfields were bombed continuously and the exhausted armorers, mechanics, and riggers slept on the grass and rarely saw their bunks or mess at the height of the battle. The young women plotting enemy attacks in the operations room often heard the screams of doomed pilots whom they knew personally diving to their deaths: and the women drivers, cooks, and clerks were often asleep on their feet.

Yet the stories of the survivors on those airfields are very different from those wartime stories that Fussell quotes. This war was as Shakespeare’s Hector saw it. An extraordinary exaltation seized the weary men and women. The pilots shouted “Tally-ho” on joining the dog-fight and set standards of chivalry: it was very bad form to shoot an enemy parachuting to safety. (Some Germans did—understandably so because one fewer British pilot meant one step nearer to victory. Equally understandably the British accepted that the Polish and Czech pilots who hated the Germans would do so.) The contrast between the reality of the pilots’ war and what was going on around them in the countryside was extraordinary. Picnics, sunbathing, getting in the harvest, and golf continued: pilots who crashed on golf courses could expect to be met by men brandishing their clubs in irritation that the fairway on the twelfth hole had been damaged.

The civilian population, however, was next in line for destruction. Tom Harrisson, the author of Living Through the Blitz, was one of the founders of Mass-Observation in 1937, which “sought to supply accurate observations of everyday life and real (not just published) public moods.” An ornithologist, Harrisson studied his fellow countrymen as if they were birds: he watched their behavior and recorded their conversation instead of interviewing them. Hundreds of other observers kept similar diaries. Harrisson thus accumulated files on firsthand accounts of experience.

As might be expected the glossy journalism of wartime propaganda that rightly offends Fussell is shaded. But not all that much shaded. There were signs of hysteria, terror, and neurosis after the famous Coventry air raid: women attacked a fireman. As the next night approached people were seen fighting to get into cars; people said, “Coventry is finished”; the rumor-mongers got to work; “there was a swastika in the sky before the raid…to warn fifth-columnists to clear out”; and the city authorities seemed paralyzed…. Yet there was no civic disobedience or open defeatism, not even fierce complaint. In five days full industrial production was restored.

The story from other cities was graver. Southampton was attacked several times in a few days. The civic authorities abdicated. The mayor left town every afternoon at three; the town clerk wandered about incapable of making decisions. Many fled the city. In many cities the local emergency services did not work well. Nor had they at first in London, but London learned fast. The lessons learned there were not passed on. The civic authorities were too often sluggish, remote, and inhibited by their sense of class difference. Nor did the churches respond; many remained locked.

But Harrisson’s final judgment on the volumes of information his observers collected is this: the blitz; terrible though it was, was not enough to destroy the basic decency, loyalty to family, morality, and optimism of most people. Hospitals and psychiatrists poised to minister to gibbering citizens waited in vain. Citizens underwent experiences similar to those of Fussell’s infantrymen. They saw bodies blown to pieces. Sorting the fragments to put them together a mortuary attendant said to a nurse with a grin: “Proper jigsaw, ain’t it, Miss?” The citizens, Harrisson says, “merely staggered, retreated, re-grouped and re-arranged themselves.”

The reality of war, as Fussell admits, can never be expressed because the war was seen through the eyes of so many who could not express what front-line infantrymen experienced. They were only a tiny fraction. Millions of soldiers never saw fighting. They worked in B echelon or on headquarters staffs. For some of them, and certainly for many civilians in the blitz, the war meant a heightening of their sense of comradeship, of fraternity, with other men and women. Indeed one of the commonest sensations experienced by veterans as they grow older is their regret for the days when they and their fellows worked together with a common purpose in war and their sadness that peace sunders social and personal relations, and denigrates self-sacrifice.

Paul Fussell himself seems to admit that madness, brutality, and the annihilation of reason and sensibility are not the whole story. He concludes his book by recalling Eisenhower just before D-day working on a communiqué that had been drafted in case the invasion of Normandy failed. He removed the impersonal phrase, “The troops have been withdrawn,” and wrote, “I have withdrawn the troops”; and he added a last sentence. “If any blame attaches to this attempt, it is mine alone.” That, says Fussell, was a noble act. So it was. But how much nobler and braver were the hundreds of other actions that took place on land, sea, and air in Europe and the Pacific. Men and women experienced unimaginable misery, endured hideous pain, and went to what they knew would be almost certain death dogged or debonair. It is not sweet to die for one’s country. It is bitter. But it can be noble. If one may dare to quote from Antigone: “There are many wonderful things, and nothing is more wonderful than man.”

  1. 1

    Frances Partridge, A Pacifist’s War (Universe, 1978).

  2. 2

    John Grigg, “Britain’s Nobler War, 1914–1918 or 1939–1945?” Gallipoli Memorial Lecture, 1989.

  3. 3

    Angela Lambert, 1939: The Last Season of Peace (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989).

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