Paul Fussell

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One thing I was trying to do in The Great War and Modern Memory was to awaken a sort of civilian sympathy for the people who suffer on the ground in wartime, and that's really an act that I've been performing, oh, ever since 1945, I suppose.

Paul Fussell (22 March 1924 - 23 May 2012) was an American cultural and literary historian, professor emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of books on eighteenth-century English literature, World War I, World War II, and social class.


Humanities interview (1996)[edit]

"The Initial Shock … A Conversation with Paul Fussell" in Humanities (November/December 1996)
  • As a former soldier, what struck me is the absolutely heartless way that war was being pursued by the Americans, partly I think because of the race problem. The Vietnamese to us were not merely communists, they were nasty little yellow people without souls. It didn't matter how we blew them up or how we bombed them or how we burned their villages and so on. I was very struck by that. And one thing I was trying to do in The Great War and Modern Memory was to awaken a sort of civilian sympathy for the people who suffer on the ground in wartime, and that's really an act that I've been performing, oh, ever since 1945, I suppose.
  • I was very interested in the Great War, as it was called then, because it was the initial twentieth-century shock to European culture. By the time we got to the Second World War, everybody was more or less used to Europe being badly treated and people being killed in multitudes. The Great War introduced those themes to Western culture, and therefore it was an immense intellectual and cultural and social shock.
    Robert Sherwood, who used to write speeches for Franklin D. Roosevelt, once noted that the cynicism about the Second War began before the firing of the first shot. By that time, we didn't need to be told by people like Remarque and Siegfried Sassoon how nasty war was. We knew that already, and we just had to pursue it in a sort of controlled despair. It didn't have the ironic shock value of the Great War.
    And I chose to write about Britain because America was in that war a very, very little time compared to the British — just a few months, actually. The British were in it for four years, and it virtually destroyed British society.
  • I'm a pacifist about certain things. I'm a pacifist in the way I define national interest. I use this example frequently: If the Mexicans decided to cross the Texas border with firearms, I would be down there in a moment with a rifle and a whistle to direct the troops to repel them. If the United States is attacked, I will defend it.
    My problem is the United States' defending the interests of the Union Oil Company or the United Fruit Company. Those are not American interests. They're private-money interests, and that bothers me a great deal.
  • One of my favorite quotes is from Hemingway, who said, "Never persuade yourself that war, no matter how necessary, is not a crime." … It is. Sometimes it's necessary, but it's always awful, and that's my point.
    • Fussell here slightly paraphrases Hemingway's statement from his Foreword to Treasury for the Free World (1946): Never think that war, no matter how necessary nor how justified, is not a crime. Ask the infantry and ask the dead.
  • [On war as ironic]: It's ironic because everybody believes that life is pleasurable, and they should. They have a right to believe that, especially if they're brought up under a Constitution that talks about the pursuit of happiness. To have public life shot through with that kind of optimism and complacency is the grounds for horrible, instructive irony when those generalities prove not true. War tends to prove them not true. War is about survival and it's about mass killing and it's about killing or being killed — that is, in the infantry — and it is extremely unpleasant. One realizes that a terrible mistake has been made somewhere, either by the optimistic eighteenth century or by mechanistic twentieth century. The two don't fit together somehow, and that creates, obviously, irony.
  • After every war, there's an immense overhaul of language, which in the Western world has created really the cultural and artistic phenomenon of what we call modernism; that is, a paring down of everything to minimal size, including language and ideas of grandeur, and ideas of a possibility of the state making everybody happy, and things like that. That modernism is really a form of skepticism or minimalism. You cut out everything that has deceived you and throw it away, and that leaves you with things like the Eames chair and Picasso and numerous other outcrops of modernism.
  • One thing one can't help noticing is the efficacy of religion before the nineteenth century at dealing with these problems and answering some of these unanswerable questions. By the time of the Great War, religion is practically dead. By the time of the Second World War, it's no help at all.
    The chaplains that were attached to the infantry that I was in practically never did spiritual work because they knew they'd be ridiculed. What they did was to apply bandages and surgical scissors, assisting the medics and calming people down psychologically. But everybody recognized that religion was no help whatever.
  • Irony is a great help in helping to penetrate fraudulent language. In the Second War especially, the language became virtually identical with the language of advertising. It was seen through by the troops, who knew what the truth was. It helped to sustain civilian support for the war, which was its purpose, after all. … And euphemism has remained, of course. It's a large part of the tone of public discourse. … It's now practiced on so wide and so official a scale that it's grown out of all proportion to what it was in the war.
  • "Those who fought know a secret about themselves, and it is not very nice." … They have experienced secretly and privately their natural human impulse toward sadism and brutality. As I say in this new book of mine, not merely did I learn to kill with a noose of piano wire put around somebody's neck from behind, but I learned to enjoy the prospect of killing that way. It's those things that you learn about yourself that you never forget. You learn that you have much wider dimensions than you had imagined before you had to fight a war. That's salutary. It's well to know exactly who you are so you can conduct the rest of your life properly.
  • Most Americans, in their sweet innocence, think that class has to do with money. But a glance at Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley will indicate that it has very little to do with money. It has to do with taste and style, and it has to do with the development of those features by acts of character. That was one of my points: to try to separate class from mercantilism or commercialism.

The Boys' Crusade (2003)[edit]

Random House, New York, 2003. ISBN: 0-679-64088-6.
  • To those on both sides who suffered.
    • The dedication

External links[edit]

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