Paul Fussell's War

Historian and critic Paul Fussell died this week at 88. His 1982 essay, "My War: How I Got Irony in the Infantry" is worth your time today.

My war is virtually synonymous with my life. I entered the war when I was nineteen, and I have been in it ever since. ...

We were in “combat.” I find the word embarrassing, carrying as it does false chivalric overtones (as in “single combat”). But synonyms are worse... “Combat” will have to do, and my first hours of it I recall daily, even now. They fueled, and they still fuel, my view of things. ...

My adolescent illusions, largely intact to that moment, fell away all at once, and I suddenly knew I was not and never would be in a world that was reasonable or just. ... To transform guiltless boys into cold marble after passing them through unbearable fear and humiliation and pain and contempt seemed to do them an interesting injustice. ...

[A month away from the line recuperating from pneumonia] had renewed my interest in survival, and I was psychologically and morally ill prepared to lead my platoon in the great Seventh Army attack of March 15, 1945. But lead it I did, or rather push it, staying as far in the rear as was barely decent. And before the day was over I had been severely rebuked by a sharp-eyed lieutenant-colonel who threatened court martial if I didn’t pull myself together. Before that day was over I was sprayed with the contents of a soldier’s torso when I was lying behind him and he knelt to fire at a machine gun holding us up: he was struck in the heart, and out of the holes in the back of his field jacket flew little clouds of tissue, blood, and powdered cloth. Near him another man raised himself to fire, but the machine gun caught him in the mouth, and as he fell he looked back at me with surprise, blood and teeth dribbling out onto the leaves. He was one to whom early on I had given the Silver Star for heroism, and he didn’t want to let me down.

As if in retribution for my cowardice, in the late afternoon, near Ingwiller, Alsace, clearing a woods full of Germans cleverly dug in, my platoon was raked by shells from an .88, and I was hit in the back and leg by shell fragments. They felt like red-hot knives going in, but I was as interested in the few quiet moans, like those of a hurt child drifting off to sleep, of my thirty-seven-year-old platoon sergeant—we’d been together since Camp Howze—killed instantly by the same shell. We were lying together, and his immediate neighbor on the other side, a lieutenant in charge of a section of heavy machine guns, was killed instantly too. My platoon was virtually wiped away. I was in disgrace, I was hurt, I was clearly expendable—while I lay there the supply sergeant removed my issue wristwatch to pass on to my replacement—and I was twenty years old.

Read it all here.

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Tags : combat, death, World War II

Comments

War's hard on people. It's harder on some than others. Who knew...

Sounds like a case for greater selectivity. Greater selectivity in the sense of avoiding stupid, unnecessary wars and in selecting the people that get sent to those that are necessary -- and some will be that...