Critic Paul Fussell Reveals the Horror, Directness of War

The passing of 88 year old English professor Paul Fussell warrants a closer look–in particular, consider his writings that skewer the glorification of war, among other things:

World War I’s chief cultural product was irony, Mr. Fussell found, as illustrated by the muttering, cynical language of the men on the battle lines and their governments’ fatuous appeals to patriotism. Popular and serious culture afterward was infused with “the sense of absurdity, disjuncture and polarization, the loathing of duly constituted authorities,” as the critic Robert Hughes wrote in a Time magazine review.

“Every war is ironic, because every war is worse than expected,” Mr. Fussell wrote. “Every war constitutes an irony of situation, because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends. Eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort, had been shot.”

via Paul Fussell, Literary Scholar and Critic, Is Dead at 88 –

Or as Stephen Metcalf writes in a fine essay on

His is a tone of voice that, for being so candid, makes one slightly embarrassed for living in ordinary times. If only the man who has known war up close knows his true self, are the rest of us condemned to a lifetime of the ersatz? Fussell seemed to think so. He once told an interviewer: “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.”  via Man of War: How combat changed Paul Fussell, and how Fussell changed American letters.

In 1989 the Atlantic Monthly published this essay by Fussell on how to rethink  the Second World War:

“America has not yet understood what the war was like and thus has been unable to use such understanding to reinterpret and redefine the national reality and to arrive at something like public maturity.”

We may never find a stronger, more articulate (indeed by being plainspoken) explainer of the dangers of romanticizing conflict than this man Fussell.


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