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War’s Laureate

The morbid greatness of Paul Fussell.

THE DEFINING MOMENT in Paul Fussell’s long life (1924–2012) occurred on March 15, 1945, in eastern France when shrapnel from a German shell tore into the young lieutenant’s back and thigh. Next to him, his platoon sergeant, Edward Hudson, was killed. Thirty years later, in 1975, Fussell published The Great War and Modern Memory, a defining moment in his career as a writer and critic and in our understanding of the place of war in modern society and consciousness. He dedicated the book to “Technical Sergeant Edward Keith Hudson.”

In the decades that followed his military service, Fussell established himself as a respected literary scholar. After acquiring a Ph.D. in English at Harvard in 1952, he produced a succession of academic works exploring the poetry and prose of eighteenth-century England and was rewarded with a professorship at Rutgers. Still, as Fussell described it, the “black fury” that overcame him after his wounding and Hudson’s death never entirely dissipated. “The war,” he once observed, “is behind everything I do.” He came to believe that the sense of betrayal that arose from the loss of innocence and optimism in the face of war’s terrible realities had shaped not just his own life, but had put a formative stamp on twentieth-century culture. Endless war became an essential “condition” of modern civilization. “There seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding,” Fussell wrote. “It is essentially ironic; and it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.”

Unending war certainly seemed a dominant condition of American life as Paul Fussell began work on The Great War. Vietnam dragged on, with body counts reported nightly on TV news and discussed—dispassionately and, in Fussell’s eyes, callously—at neighborhood cocktail parties. University campuses like Rutgers, where he worked, and Princeton, where he lived, were disrupted by student protests against the war and student anxieties about the draft. The Great War appeared in print in the same year that the United States withdrew from Saigon, a moment when Americans were primed to respond to Fussell’s powerful questioning of the assumptions, purposes, and political effectiveness of war.

Yet this was not a traditional book about politics or statecraft or military history. It was fundamentally a study of language and understanding—of British writers and poets who produced a literature of disillusion that refracted Fussell’s own experience and war-born sensibility. Many reviewers noted the book’s emotional force, and certainly Fussell’s profound identification with his subjects added power to his skills as scholar and critic. He would later insist that only those who had experienced battle could write accurately about war, could be “true testifiers.”

Fussell reached beyond the texts of literary high culture—Wilfred Owen, Siegfreid Sassoon, Robert Graves—and immersed himself in the mass of World War I archival materials deposited at London’s Imperial War Museum by hundreds of veterans and their families. Most of these collections had never been previously explored. They included notebooks covered with mud from Ypres and the Somme; mangled identity disks and mementoes; as well as letters, diaries, unit rosters, and field orders. Fussell embedded his discussion of the war’s literary expression in the textured day-to-day experiences of ordinary soldiers. Language and literature came, in his telling, not just to represent an elite of education and talent, but to embody broader cultural perceptions Fussell identified as characteristic of an age.

Fussell’s interest in the common soldier reflected emerging trends in historical writing of the early ’70s. Workers, slaves, women, and others whose voices had not been included in the record of the past became in those years subjects of increasing attention from historians seeking to look beyond the lives and power of statesmen and generals. In military history, the most influential example of this development was John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, which sought to divert historical focus from commanders to their men, to those who actually had to climb out of the trenches and fight. Appearing in 1976, the book explored in three battles across different centuries many of the same themes Fussell addressed on the western front: what men ate, sang, wore, believed, and feared, and how they fought and died.

For both Fussell and Keegan, these particularities served as a means of shattering the euphemisms and delusions they believed had come to surround so much of our understanding of war. Fussell embraced the “authenticity” of the diaries and letters he found in the Imperial War Museum. The circumstantial details of everyday experience reconnected war writing with realities obscured by the pervasive romanticization of war. It was the denial and obfuscation of war’s fundamental truths that created Fussell’s “black fury.” He intended his work as an enduring rejection of what Wilfred Owen called “the old Lie”: that it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.

Fussell was not the first to suggest that World War I served as a watershed, introducing a modernity that found its fullest expression in an ensuing era of total war. He has been criticized by those who believe he overstated the war’s cultural impact and its horror in comparison with earlier conflicts—for example, the devastating Thirty Years War. I have found that many of the glimpses of modernity he attributes to the years after 1914 are in fact visible in the American response to the slaughter of our Civil War a half century before. Others believe his arguments are only applicable to the British experience and not more broadly generalizable. And he has been challenged to offer a preferred alternative to war against Germany in 1914—or again, to the conflict occurring a quarter century later that he portrayed in his 1989 book, Wartime, as so very far from the “Good War” it is now remembered to be.

But these cavils and criticisms are fundamentally beside the point. We continue to ask Fussell’s questions and accept the framework of his analysis even as we push against its boundaries and note its limitations. Fussell’s moving and unforgettable work has created a language of perception and understanding that has shaped all our subsequent writing and thinking about war. His attention to memory has encouraged a whole genre of historical writing and has brought the study of war into the center of cultural history. The irony and disillusion Fussell identifies as the product of the years between 1914 and 1918 have defined our perceptions of modernity and of ourselves.

Yet the “black fury” that characterized Fussell’s life and served as the wellspring of his extraordinary work paradoxically undermines an essential aspect of his powerful insight. After 1914, there could be “Never such innocence again,” Fussell has insisted, borrowing poet Philip Larkin’s oft-quoted words. Yet it was in just such innocence that young Paul Fussell went off to war, only to find on the battlefields of France the lessons he so eloquently described his predecessors learning decades before. Perhaps Fussell’s fury derived from discovering that innocence is born again and again. He made it his lifework to deploy the force of language and ideas to destroy that innocence before it led yet another generation of young soldiers to confront the horror he endured on March 15, 1945.

Drew Gilpin Faust’s most recent book is This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. She is president of Harvard. This article appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the magazine.