#12: WAR. Most anti-war poems and novels are both aesthetic and practical failures: the message usurps the author’s attention, the details become conventional, the message fails to register. Two books by Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory and Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, give far more convincing body and harrowing detail to the assertion that war is, simply, insanity. In the first he explores not just the history and literature of the Great War but how it affected our ideas of life, governance and justice; in the second he continues this exploration, this time into World War II, with attention to the differences in the times, the reporting of them, and the public’s reaction. The detail, perhaps especially to those of us who have not done military service, is always telling and absorbing; the choice of eyewitness records makes the books believable but also haunting. The last chapters of Wartime, “The Real War Will Never Get Into the Books”—a plaint echoed from Whitman—is as moving a recounting of the mutilation of war, both physical and psychic, as I have ever read. Both are in print from Oxford.
A worthy pendant to these works is Fussell’s smaller book, The Boys' Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe 1944-1945. He centers, effectively, on the youth of the infantry soldiers, and how it affected their experience of the war and how it was conducted. It’s part of the Modern Library Chronicles series, published in 2003. Among Fussell’s other work is Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), which casts an amused eye on the topic of mandatory dress—with some memorable and mordant remarks on the peacock instincts of General Patton, the ill-received attempts of Elmo Zumwalt to dress up the Navy and the Ruritanian disaster of President Nixon’s White House Guard.
Still considering? Chris Hedges’s book What Every Person Should Know About War (Free Press, 2003) begins with a quote from Chaucer: “There is full many a man that crieth, ‘Werre! Werre!’ that woot full little what werre amounteth.” Hedges’s book is 150 pages of questions and answers that tell you, with a kind of deadly blandness and heaping of detail, what werre amounteth, ranging from what burn injuries feel like to the news that statistically you’ll be twice as likely to beat your wife after being in a war, to the simple answer to the question as to whether Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can be cured: no. If you’re a minority in the services, well, I’ll leave it to your imagination, but Hedges won’t. The one bit of good news I noticed was that the reports of hostile reactions to Vietnam veterans returning home were apparently somewhat exaggerated. Other than that it’s a lot of bad news, which I for one would like to see distributed to a lot of school libraries. Once the truth gets out, it’s awfully hard to retrieve, although God knows people keep trying.