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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.

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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