Paul Fussell Declares War on Optimism, Chickenshit, & Glory
Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War
New York: Oxford University Press, 1989
Most readers know Paul Fussell from his satiric Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, which, intended as a humorous study of American mores, has been accepted as a legitimate guideline to what H. L. Mencken called Boobis americanus. Fussell, however, produced many serious books, among them a remarkable memoir, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, recalling his service in the Second World War as an infantry officer, where he was seriously wounded and received a Bronze Star.
A lingering bitterness was apparent in Doing Battle, no doubt a residual effect of his wound he carried throughout his life, making him not exactly bitter but rather one who offered a superb, acidic analysis of life. “I find nothing more depressing than optimism,” Fussell observed.
This mindset came to splendid fruition in his 1989 Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. Wartime is especially pertinent now as we seem ready to step into a major war or two — or perhaps three. His book is a valuable aid in understanding the attitudes and psychological suggestions — both subliminal and overt — in modern war. As Fussell wrote: “For the past fifty years the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the looney patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty. I have tried to balance the scales.”
His book presents a kaleidoscope of wartime consequences, from errors and misconceptions on how easy victory and actual combat will be, to the consequences of prolonged, industrial war on society, to the baleful effects of propaganda, to a comparison between what the “home front” saw of war and its gruesome realities. This was a consequence of the fact that many had assumed that the war would be, as with many other modern things, efficient and “clean,” and would avoid the meat grinder that was the First World War.
Fussell opens his book describing photos of a jeep speeding over any obstacle “looking as cute as Bambi” with quickness, dexterity, and style. (With the Lord’s help, of course; the Allied cause was righteous. Didn’t Eisenhower title his wartime memoir Crusade in Europe?) It was suggested that older men could easily fight in the war, since marching was a thing of the past. Everything now would be motorized, streamlined, or airborne. What was not anticipated was the grinding attritional war to come: jungle campaigns, the muck and slog of Italy and northwest Europe, and the incredible brutality and lethal efficiency of modern weapons. It was hard for a soldier to write home and describe how he was smacked in the chest by his buddy’s decapitated head. The beaches of Normandy on D-Day were littered with body parts — everything from legs to penises. The remains of bomber tail gunners had to be cleaned out with a steam hose.
This led to a massive propaganda campaign to tone down the horrors of the war. Gruesome photos were obviously omitted, and Fussell notes that a great number of military errors were fudged over. Bombers weren’t as accurate as they were made out to be, for example, often missing their targets by dozens of yards. Fussell explains that although a lot of things could be destroyed using bombs, they weren’t necessarily the things that were being aimed at. Allied anti-aircraft gun crews likewise had a dismal habit of shooting down their own planes. There were mishaps such as Operation Cobra, a 1944 bombing raid that was carried out near Saint-Lo as part of the Normandy campaign. Instead of the Germans being on the receiving end, the Allied lines were plastered, and 747 GIs were killed or wounded. Even years later, photos of American bodies being recovered after the bombing were said to be the result of German shelling.
A device used on D-Day consisted of inflatable tubes attached to tanks equipped with dual drive propellers that was supposed to buoy them so they could be dropped from ships offshore, speed to the beach, and immediately go into combat. 32 were launched, and 27 promptly sank like a stone, taking their crews with them. The Time-Life series of books published decades after the war nevertheless shows a photo of a tank equipped with this device, calling it “a tank that could swim.” Nothing is said about what actually happened. Military inefficiency and blunders were widespread on both sides. Hitler ironically said that “the loser of this war will be the side that makes the greatest blunders.” It makes him an astute observer of reality, even if he himself was not immune.
The Second World War, even more so than the previous one, was a thoroughly propagandized affair. Newspapers were already in existence during the First World War, but the Second also saw 24-hour radio, film, and widely-circulated weekly magazines. Propaganda agencies in all the combatant nations thus saw the need to create “good news.” Radio was a primary purveyor of information; the average listener at the time of the war heard 4.5 hours of programming a day. But what he heard thoroughly censored, sanitized, and resolutely optimistic.
Reporters such as Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, and others did what they could to present an accurate picture of the war. One who became a national institution was Ernie Pyle, whose reporting on GIs at the front was well received. He embellished his reports with glowing descriptions of individual soldiers, however, which were commonly called Joe Blow stories. While remaining folksy, it also softened the dehumanizing aspects of modern war. Even the acronym “GI,” or “government issue,” itself that was used to describe American soldiers was a form of depersonalization.
Fussell notes that there was an attempt to enlist high culture in war propaganda. He thought the BBC had done a better job of this than American radio. Churchill’s oratory was certainly widely praised, and it was Churchill whose legacy was to define the war. He had his detractors, though: Hesketh Parsons found him “very amateurish,” sounding like “a gangster clergyman who has gone on the stage.” The novelist Evelyn Waugh likewise considered Churchill “a radio personality who has outlived his prime.”
Yet, the staple of the great majority of listeners was not political oratory, but popular music which was intended to be heard “while you work.” Much of this was instrumental. In Britain it was felt that music with lyrics might cause workers to slow down in order to hear the words, and thereby set back production.
Inspirational war stories were always hard to come by, but the propagandists were more than happy to embellish. A B-17 bomber pilot, Captain Colin Kelly, became a hero in 1942 when it was said that he had rammed his crashing bomber into a Japanese battleship, destroying it. In reality, the bomber had merely damaged a troopship during an ordinary attack and survived the battle. Kelly and one other crewman were in fact killed later, when their plane was shot down by Japanese Zeros during its return to base. Kelly was in fact trying to bail out when his parachute became caught on the escape hatch. His alleged heroics were conveniently forgotten late in the war after Japanese kamikaze pilots began making suicide attacks on American ships; the media began propagating the view that such suicide attacks were not acts of bravery, but rather those of madmen.
Frank Loesser, later known for writing the song lyrics for the musical Guys and Dolls, penned “The Ballad of Roger Young,” about a posthumous Medal of Honor winner who had rushed a Japanese machine gun nest:
Oh, they’ve got no time for glory in the Infantry,
Oh, they’ve got no use for praises loudly sung,
But in every soldier’s heart in all the Infantry,
Shines the name, shines the name of Roger Young.
Fussell reports that the song was too embarrassing for either soldiers or those on the home front to take into their hearts. But I mention this song because the starship that Johnny Rico, the protagonist of Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers, serves aboard is named the Roger Young. At the end of the novel, after a huge victory over the alien bugs, Rico wants to hear the ballad to cheer him up. It’s a nice example of Heinlein’s satire of a fascist society, which is often wrongly seen by critics as Heinlein endorsing such a world. As Loesser later wrote, “You give hope without facts; glory without blood. You give them a legend with the rough edges neatly trimmed.”
Some wartime music also dealt with soldiers’ sexual deprivation: “I’ve Got a Girl in Kalamazoo,” and later, when worries about infidelity at home grew, “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me” and “Somebody Else is Taking My Place.” Even in Nazi Germany, the supposed den of legions of fanatical warriors, the Wehrmacht’s Wunschkonzert (request concert) included the usual hit music, the schlagers. “Lili Marleen” remained a staple.
The creation of propaganda was a full-time business. Fussell notes that vast numbers of officers were assigned as propaganda aides. Even Dwight Eisenhower — who disdained fellow officers who chased after publicity such as Douglas MacArthur, George S. Patton, and Bernard Montgomery — demanded that 12 more public relations officers be added to his staff. And on a visit to France after D-Day, he was met by no fewer than 50 newsmen. These officers served no other function; Eisenhower’s media chief, Navy Captain Harry Butcher, admitted that he didn’t even know the difference between latitude and longitude.
A major problem faced by the Allied governments was that the public had to be constantly reminded about why they were fighting the war. Anger in response to Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s aggression served that purpose early on, but as the years wore on, by and large there was a great deal of indifference among the public regarding war aims. In the end, the messaging simply became “let’s get the job done so we can go home.” Home was defined as a place where there was good food and plentiful consumer goods. That hazy conception of the good life laid the foundations for what came to be regarded as the American way of life in the post-war era.
The myth of the war as being absolutely necessary lives on in post-war legend. For example, Bart Simpson has dutifully opined that there was never a war that was necessary in all of history — apart from the American Revolution and the Second World War.
It’s noteworthy that when Churchill ran again for Prime Minister in 1945 on a program of keeping Europe safe from Communism, he lost to Attlee. The British were tired of war. The US had its own war weariness, and in the heavily censored American film industry, two comedies by Preston Sturges, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero, poked fun at the earlier wartime rallying , implying that two of the sacred cows of the war effort, the decency and purity of the GIs and their women as well as military heroism itself, were suspect. It recalls the propaganda in relation to our recent “war” on COVID (“A Mask is the New Smile”), where, after about a year and a half, public obedience declined and enthusiasm for countermeasures simply died out.
In contrast to the idea of American GIs going off to war with enthusiasm and idealism, desertion rates during the war were in fact heavy. Thousands of GIs who were AWOL (away without leave) were on the loose in Britain. The situation was no better on the continent. Anthony Burgess later said that his novel A Clockwork Orange, depicting violent gangs in a dreary socialist Britain, was largely influenced by the gangs of GIs that were on the loose, one of which sexually assaulted his wife.
Fussell likewise describes the excessive drinking that went on in the rank. Many soldiers were drunk most of the time, partly to cope with the stress of combat. Smoking was also heavy, and actively encouraged by the military. Even when I enlisted in the US Army in 1973, a pack of cigarettes was always included in our C rations alongside the food. Both of these habits carried over into post-war society. As Jim Kunstler noted, much of post-war suburban life involved the alcoholism and smoking that had been inherited from wartime.
The main enemy that all soldiers had to deal with was the facelessness and dehumanization of military life. Fussell cites the poetry of James Dickey as well as Randall Jarrell’s observation that servicemen were regarded merely as “killable puppets,” or as “something there are millions of.” Being a soldier involves social brutality, which Fussell defines as chickenshit: petty harassment, inane inspections, and sadism disguised as essential discipline that in fact has nothing to do with winning the war. Writers such as Norman Mailer chronicled this in The Naked and the Dead, as did Kingsley Amis in My Enemy’s Enemy. “Chickenshit” is the strong against the weak, where a phony class system of officers versus the enlisted prevails. A cartoon inYank, the US Army’s weekly news magazine for soldiers, showed two officers standing on a ledge, admiring a mountain vista. One says to the other, “It’s a splendid view. Is there one for the enlisted men?”
In the chapter entitled “Typecasting,” Fussell examines the corporate and advertising world’s efforts to convince both the home front and the GIs accept the suggestions propagated by the mass media. The Germans were shown as clever, but ruthless; the Italians clumsy, yet sweet. The Japanese, of course, were savage beasts who were incapable of civilized behavior. Wartime propaganda always openly called for bitter revenge on Japan. As Norman Mailer wrote in The Naked and the Dead, the Japanese were seen as cute little pets who had dared to bite their master, and had to be dealt with.
Americans in general were puffed up and exalted in sedate, subtle ways by the media. Fussell notes that there was relentless advertising in which
[o]ne would immediately understand the wartime thrill Americans achieved by imagining themselves good-looking Aryans, blond and tall, beloved by slim blonde women and surrounded by much-desired consumer goods. If the illustrations are to be believed, all young men are in the Air Corps, where they are officers almost by definition . . . The people on whose behalf the war is being fought are Anglo-Saxons, “nice people” — that is, upper middle class . . . If the Jews, like those in New York, liked to think the war was in some way about them, it’s clear that most people didn’t want to be like them in any way or even reminded of them.
It must be added that during the war years, many Americans fit that description; the post-war push to displace whites didn’t begin until the 1960s.
Len Deighton, in his insightful Blood, Tears, and Folly, noted that the sort of clear-cut issues that defined the war may never be seen again, and the racial unity that characterized both America and Europe at the time has since forever been altered. Writing in 1993, Deighton argued that the future may well be determined by either the success of a multi-racial world such as America’s or a racially united society such as Japan’s. Substitute China for Japan today, and our current dilemma is defined.
Another fanciful view of the Allied public was My Sister and I: The Diary of a Dutch Boy Refugee by Dirk van Der Heide. Dirk was said to have fled Rotterdam during the German bombing as a boy and then made it to England. While ostensibly celebrating the bravery of the Dutch, My Sister and I was in fact about something else entirely. Fussell observes:
The book is really a shrewd attempt to depict the British, presumably Hitler’s next victims, as especially fine and noble — selfless, sympathetic, faultless in every way . . . No one in the whole of the United Kingdom is impatient, not to mention snotty, snobbish, inept, or in any way unadmirable.
It turned out after the war that Dirk was a fabrication and that the book had in fact been commissioned by the publisher Harcourt and Brace, the “eye-witness account” intended to help motivate the American public to go to the aid of those brave and selfless British. The diary has interesting similarities to The Diary of Anne Frank, and supports Fussell’s contention that the war was the epitome of advertising. Fussell cites the infamous quotation usually attributed to either Joseph Goebbels or Adolf Hitler about the big lie: “The bigger the lie, the easier people will swallow it.” This quote has in fact never been found in either of the men’s writings or speeches, but is usually presented to to make it seem as if the Nazi leadership was gloating about their own propaganda techniques. Hitler did say something similar in Mein Kampf, but he was describing Jewish methods, and Goebbels made a similar statement as well, but he was referring to British propaganda. Fussell, apparently unaware of this, goes on to say that “to have a Goebbels, you have to have something like we now recognize as the media world, where things are conventionally asserted to be true which smart people know are false.”
The civilian population was so shielded from the actual reality of the war for those fighting it that a gulf developed between the boundless optimism of the war aims and the reality such that the Allies’ war aims themselves became clouded. In wartime recollections and memoirs of Allied veterans, there is a constant theme of their being unable to describe “what it was really like.” The conditions they underwent were bad enough, but there was also a sense of inner despair over the pointlessness of grinding, wrenching combat in industrialized warfare. British officer Neil McCallum said that his men largely ceased to think at all, and that there was an annihilation of the spirit. The war aims meant nothing to the soldiers at the front; it was simply about people killing other people.
An equally dreary recollection comes from Eugene B. Sledge, a US Marine whose book With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa is one of the finest memoirs of the war. Sledge recalls no glory or purpose in what he did apart from survival and the endurance to deal with trenches and jungles filled with excrement, maggots, and rotting corpses. He recalled, “It is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane . . . To me the war was insanity.”
Fussell writes with clarity rather than sourness about the war. He is especially piqued about the sense of hope that the war had been supposed to bring. He recounts that the literature of the period tried to instill optimism and a sense of community through writers such as Thornton Wilder. Acidic observers such as H. L. Mencken were forced to tone down their standard copy in favor of reminiscences and material that would not upset the wartime readers, or perhaps cause him to think. When John Steinbeck wrote The Moon Is Down and tried to offer a balanced view of both the Norwegians under German occupation and the Germans themselves, he was chided for it; Germans were only supposed to be depicted as evil.
Great efforts were made to get books to the troops. The paperback took off during the war as an easy way to carry a book. The British battledress uniform’s large pockets were nicknamed Penguin Pockets, since they were good places to store the new Penguin paperbacks. Yet, Fussell records that the overwhelming books of choice for soldiers were comic books. As one GI asked another, “Hey, buddy, fiction or non-fiction, which is real?”
Wartime also offers a guide to post-war America and the 1950s, with its relentless good faith and societal sense of material satiation. It was a afterglow from the war years that didn’t really end until Vietnam. Fussell concludes:
The same tricks of publicity and advertising might have succeeded in sweetening the actualities of Vietnam if television and a vigorous uncensored moral journalism hadn’t been brought to bear. America has not yet understood what the Second World War was like and has been unable to use such understanding to re-interpret and re-define the national reality and to arrive at something like public maturity.
Wartime is a mature, thoughtful, and comprehensive volume about the era which has obvious parallels to today and recent attempts to propagandize the wars in Ukraine, and now Gaza, in favor of the American government’s view of their causes and conditions. Fussell’s wound, both physical and spiritual, led to a realistic portrayal of the “good war.”
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