A Skeptic in the Foxhole


It is said there are no atheists in foxholes. In the case of literary critic and bloodied World War II vet Paul Fussell, the politically correct don’t inhabit the trenches, either. For him, a lifelong skepticism and refusal of sloganeering was born the moment he, a 20 year old infantry soldier, engaged in combat and was subsequently wounded in France in 1944. From then on, he fought a new war, not one of bullets, but one of words against formula merchants who eschewed complexity and irony.

Professor Fussell is perhaps best known for his National Book Award winning The Great War and Modern Memory. It was highly praised by such literary heavyweights as Lionel Trilling. By 1975, attacking the Great War was a given. But Fussell’s thesis was original. He argued, through the diaries of participants, that trench warfare gave birth to the modern age as we know it. In short, “romanticism” that had dominated the European Continent for decades was shot away in a war that had no glorious Kiplingesque cavalry charges (many were still armed with swords). Those who attempted this on foot were met with “inglorious” machine gun fire (it was a measure of how much the Victorian idea of war as merely a healthy outdoor sport was embedded in those when they kicked a football across “No Man’s Land”). Also gone was the idea that history was a form of progress; now soldiers and eventually citizens had to cope with the realization that the universe was a chaotic mess. The only equipment against this wake-up call was irony. Instead of humankind being a “universal brotherhood,” soldiers brought back a “versus” attitude toward humankind. First, an attitude of wised-up soldiers versus foolishly romantic and stay-at-home patriots (many in the trenches wanted to sink their bayonets into the cheerleaders back home),followed by “Jews vs. Aryans, the proletariat versus the exploiters, and liberals versus conservatives.

This was safe-going in 1975, the period of American defeat and withdrawal from Vietnam (that year people witnessed the last ride out of Saigon, with South Vietnamese citizens desperately hanging onto the copter).

But Fussell was too much a curmudgeon to play it safe. In Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1984), he took on the even-then sacred view of the “Good War.” He reminded audiences that with the presence of Stalinist Russia in the Allies it was from being a democratic crusade. In addition, he noted that hard-fought individualism of the 20s was now subsumed under an indistinguishable mass of acned kids just out of high school (in the case of Hitler’s last batch of soldiers, they were kids not yet in high school). The hard realities for those who thought they were wised-up about combat, courtesy of such interwar books revealing combat to be anything but noble and something one could survive if one was brave and athletic enough, was, according to Fussell, the horrible realization for combat troops that:
“It is going to happen to me, and only my not being there is going to prevent it.”

If not equally important was the damage World War II did to literature. H.L Mencken, a trenchant critic of the establishment, now navel-watched, as evidenced by writing only about his early days as a newspaperman. Only George Orwell, wounded in the throat during the Spanish Civil War, wrote anything of value, but even he, at times, succumbed to the bloodthirsty atmosphere, asserting that it was better for a cross-section of the population to be bombed than just the young men, and wrote little about the Holocaust and Hiroshima. But, other times, he attempted decent values by writing how those seeking “revenge” against captured Nazis were engaging in something “sour” and unmerciful.

As expected, Fussell liked Orwell, not just for his honesty, but also because he represented a common sense, empirical approach to writing as opposed to literary theorists. Fussell located Orwell’s view of literature as “what works empirically” because he did not “attend a university.” As such, he did not view literature as “what assumes proper shapes.”

By far Fussell’s most politically incorrect moment was when he wrote the essay “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.” Writing from his own point of view of which he, a 40% disabled vet, was to be part of an invasion force into Japan, he regarded Hiroshima and Nagasaki as necessary. Drawing a line in the sand, he noted that those politically correct figures who either argued that the dropping the Bomb was unnecessary, or could have been delayed a few weeks so those on the Allied side could realize the madness of what they were unleashing, were either safely behind the lines in non-combat units or on the home-front. In his attacks on such political correctness he wasn’t loathe to play the “what did you in the war?” card. He reminded readers that critics such as John Kenneth Galbraith worked in the Office of Price Administration in Washington; historian Michael Sherry was “eight months old” in 1945, whose sole danger was “falling out of his pram.”

Most damning was his examination of what would have happened to soldiers in the Pacific theatre had these academics’ proposals been implemented. Those who planned the Japanese invasion, based on how willing Hirohito was to expend large numbers of kamikaze soldiers, saw the war lasting a year and resulting in one million casualties. This figure was based on current Japanese behavior toward the Americans. He quotes figures showing that American infantry was suffering “over 7,000 per week.”

While stay-at-homes were denouncing Truman for dropping the bomb, soldiers slated for the invasion cried with relief that they were now going to survive the war.

Fussell regarded himself as on the Left, but the writings he left behind (he died in 2012) reveal a figure at odds with today’s academic Left. He was equipped with complexity–he did not forget that the atom-bombing of Japan was “a vast historical tragedy”–while at the same time, to the shame of today’s historical community, he refused to tow the politically-incorrect line.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.


  1. I only discovered Paul Fussell a year after he died, while researching the Great War. His war memoir, published a half century after the fact is my inspiration to write my own.

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