The Holocaust Historiography Project

Review Article

A 'Good War' It Wasn’t

  • WAR TIME: UNDERSTANDING AND BEHAVIOR IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Paul Fussell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Hardbound, xiv+331 pp., photographs, notes, index, $19.95, ISBN 0-19-503797-9.

Reviewed by James J. Martin

Of the approximately half-million titles issued by mainline American publishers in the 1980s, War Time by Professor Paul Fussell is one of a small selection which a Revisionist might profit from reading. It has a variety of shortcomings; parts of it are twice-told and thrice-told stories to Revisionists, and there are portions which have an eerie resemblance to a wide range of works published in 1916-1933 about the First World War. History in the broader sense in fact comes in second to other matters ranging from efforts at broad psychologizing to extended literary memorialization. But the fact that the most prestigious of the Establishment university presses would attach its signet and nihil obstat to such a volume as this brings up a whole range of questions and speculations from a Revisionist perspective. This includes the question of why, at this moment of global neo-imperial saturation and general immersion in the unrealistic prolongation of the homeric saga of 1939-45, assisted these days by daily gas attacks from television replays of it all (sometimes as much as 30 hours a week in some urban centers), a work from its own stronghold should come forth which in the main promotes a caustic, destabilizing assault on a substantial number of the Establishment’s most reassured and oft-repeated yarns, fables, conventions and fixations, integral essentials of what we have been tirelessly reminded was the only noble, benevolent war throughout the last near- millennium.

Those familiar with the follow-up of World War One, and this reviewer was weaned on its post-hostilities disillusionist literature to the point that he became virtually traumatized and for a time suppressed that he had read much of it (he never heard a word of it mentioned in school), will dwell in memory on this background and puzzle why it took almost 45 years for the appearance of a book at least partially analogous on War No. 2. The main topics of the book at hand, insofar as they are a replay with variations on the experience of 1914-18, had been exhaustively investigated, examined and reported in the first three years after the 1918 cessation of hostilities, and the subject for another dozen years thereafter produced a literature so vast that it would take a respectable slice of a normal lifetime to read it all. But, in view of the sieve-like nature of memory, it does no harm to restate and rewrite many things while introducing so many new ones growing out of the different experiences of 1939-1945. Prof. Fussell does not try to explain why it took so long after World War Two for a book like his to appear, and, since his book is close to being totally non-political, he does not dwell upon the hard reality that such a work is actually subversive to the general world political status quo, since the latter is based almost entirely on the political settlement following the “victory” of 1945 and its outrageously unrealistic historical foundation. Disturbing this does not seem to be the author’s intention whatsoever, and one need not pursue the reason behind its production or its objective, but just enjoy its continuous perforation of dearly-held popular misconceptions, ranging over the years from the sappy to the preposterous.

As for his personal explanation of how he came to write War Time, Prof. Fussell in his Preface (p. ix) declared that over the last half century the “Allied” part of the war of 193945 had been “sanitized and romanticized beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant and the bloodthirsty,” and that he was just trying “to balance the scales.” However, in an interview in Denver on the occasion of a visit to a large bookstore to autograph copies of his work, the author declared in the most emphatic of terms (even the reporter put the key word in italic) that he was without the faintest smidgin of a qualification “a sentimental patriot.” (Denver Post, October 19, 1989, p. 2C). Having already upbraided both the “sentimental” and the “loony patriotic” for the disfiguring and distortion which they had visited upon World War Two history, he was here creating a separate category for himself out of both these, apparently convinced that sentiment and patriotism might be rescued from these unworthy pretenders, it being left unsaid that ignorance and bloodthirstiness could expect no champions regardless of the final conclusion and disposition. It might be cautionary however to keep in mind that the bloodthirsty and the ignorant are never vanquished from the field of writing about the past, and that there is never some “final verdict of history,” which is one reason why it is extremely difficult not to react to the infectiousness of the enthusiastic, reckless arrogance of the profoundly uninformed amateur. This also partially explains why there is rarely a cause too bizarre to gain adherents and a personality so unbelievably outrageous as not to generate deeply impressed and convinced followers if not totally-captured zealots.

The Library of Congress identifies the general classification of War Time as principally concerned with the “psychological aspects” of World War Two (throwing in “propaganda” as a coda), but its subtitle is Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. Psychology and behavior, understanding and insight are all interwoven in the individual personality, and have a substantial dependence on the amount of factual knowledge gained and present, or the lack or total absence of, as well as experience. The poverty-stricken intellect in the fields of politics, and surely economics, of the mass of the soldiery Prof. Fussell describes and serves as fugleman for, leads one to speculate how any managed any understanding whatever, wandering about mystified and in confused wonder at everything, and about as competent to analyze and sort out anything as a squirrel might be in attempting to figure out the significance of Sunday.

From internal evidence one might describe War Time as essentially a literary history of the war of 1939-1945, looking at things almost exclusively through the eyes of then contemporary British and American soldiers and civilians. It makes a minimum effort to summon or mobilize historians, and even for facts tends to depend on subjective contributions from others, which creep into the story from several vantage-points, sometimes almost by indirection. The primary sources are novelists, short-story writers, essayists, collections of letters published well after they were written, poets and various versifiers with output ranging from the profound to doggerel, biographers and diarists, some previously unpublished or long-delayed, with copious recourse to memoirs and random collections in productions of several kinds of literary historical consequence; materials cited from the Imperial War Museum in London were of special interest to this reviewer. (Seven decades ago, when this writer was still a pre-schooler, the famed literary critic Carl van Doren observed that biographies had been in the hand of fictioneers and moralists for many centuries, while it was increasingly obvious that auto-biographies were greater snake-pits of these distorting influences. So it cautions one in using these as sources, as is also the case with diaries. A diarist has been said to be powerless before facts, but in diaries a quiet filtering-out process tends to take place, described by the colorful and the imaginative as a kind of literary Darwinism, with only those facts serving to defend the diarist, the “fittest,” if you will, tending to survive in the record. One has to resist the tendency to esteem all sources as of equal validity.)

It need not be stressed that there is not the faintest reference to Revisionists or Revisionism in War Time, nor the remotest hint or citation of or to their work, even though the latter enterprises contain much related information of the sort used here. The impression reflected here and there is one of proposing that no one has got around to treat of the matters involved in the book before. The chief drawback of this book from a historical perspective, however, is its top-heavy reliance on sources published in the 12 years prior to its publication. Anything done on any historical subject so weighted on sources or recollections that long after the event excites a succession of reservations and much reflection. As to his own subjective commentary and narrative, there is an almost Chekhovian quality to his analysis of the things that hurt him so bad 45 years or more ago that he seems to be simply restating the contemporary reactions and observations. (It was Balzac who observed, “We describe best the things that have hurt us the most.")

War Time has no general bibliography but contains a thorough name and author index. However, checking authorities confined to source notes gathered at the back is a problem, since these authors are not indexed unless mentioned directly in the text. Several sources perform repeated service in various chapters, but, when serially cited, the page numbers may not be entered in the index, which creates additional labor for those who are not content simply to glide along with the story, which is easy to do, as it is expertly told. Prof. Fussell is a foxy and subtle writer who enjoys distinction among pedagogues; he actually is vastly readable, as against the general output of a class of users of the printed form who make about the same impression in English as they might in Sanskrit. Since the chapters of War Time leap abruptly from one subject to another, disturbing those who expect a sustained narrative, the style seems to change as well. Some parts appear to be written in the candid, ingenuous manner of the unpretentious wartime 20-year-old ignoramus, caught in this excruciating wartime insanity, utterly incapable of figuring out why and how he got there. Other parts are in a learned and sophisticated mode, employing here and there bits and pieces of a sense of humor which could be described as a concealed weapon, though there is the likelihood that if the general run of dunces stumbles across this work they will never realize it has been used on them.

Early chapters concerned with weaponry, tactics and strategy in the war cover familiar ground. There is interesting commentary on the gradual switch from lightness and accuracy to mass production of ever more heavy stuff, area- comprehensive saturation bombing and other recourses, drowning the enemy in continuous cloudbursts of metal; the movement from rifles to automatic weapons, flame throwers and other mass-dispersal armament requiring no more skill than the ability to point them somewhere, culminating in the ultimate mass weapon used against an entire community, the atom bomb, all in all an insightful discourse.

Prof. Fussell’s complaint about inferior weapons and related commentary about performance, accepting Max Hastings' conclusion that when the combatants faced one another in equal numbers the Germans were invariably the best, recalls an observation made during the First World War. When General Robert Lee Bullard, one of the three top American commanders in France 1917-18, retired in December 1924, he made the remark that in the recently concluded combat one German soldier had been the equivalent of three “Allied.” This stirred up a testy controversy in the daily press for weeks, and may have been difficult to prove concentrating exclusively on the Western Front, but was surely correct if one included what had transpired on the Eastern, where the Germans had simply pulped the armed forces of the Tsar, while maintaining what was essentially a holding action in the West, as was developed by early historians of the war such as the Briton A.F. Pollard and the American Carlton J.H. Hayes, whose works were probably the best until that of C.R.M.F. Cruttwell, published in 1934.

There may be an almost uncontrollable impulse to bulk out Prof. Fussell’s account on the part of anyone who has worked this field as well in the last 40 years, though necessarily muffled in an examination such as this. This is demonstrable when it comes to matters of such fame and repute that they are long-ago established as icons, simply too numerous to memorialize. One might begin with the legendary “Battle of Britain,” which in many ways set the pattern for the parade of semi or full fictions which are draped across the story of the war, a few of which are repeated in War Time. Especially recommended is the drastic deflation of the above by Wing Commander H.R. Allen, who took part in the saga, in the Times of London for September 15, 1978, far too long to reproduce here. Cmdr. Allen brings up an important point concerning war stories: their evolution from patent exaggerations to “emotive issues,” which is worse. It has been argued for a long time that what people believe is secondary to what they want to believe, and that they are often more likely to exert themselves in the “cause” of the latter than in that of the former. (That Churchill carefully rehearsed and partially plagiarized his famous never-has-so-much-been-owed-to-so-few rhetoric and that his famed we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches etc. speech was really delivered on the radio by an actor are secondary incidentals.)

Concerning a few others, in the fiascoes-and-Pyrrhic- victories department, in the account of the unbelievable calamity of the Dieppe raid (which took place August 19, 1942 and not in the fall of that year, by the way), nothing is related that the survivors of it (which this writer has long called “a one-day Gallipoli") were considered so psychologically destroyed that they were never again committed to combat. Prof. Fussell is even more appalled by what transpired in November. 1943 at Tarawa. a three-square-mile atoll in the Gilbert Islands, just north of the Equator and about 500 miles west of the International Date Line, a part of the British Empire at least nominally since 1892 and by formal annexation in 1915. This island had been taken and fortified by the Japanese, and defended by a contingent of land-based sailors (supported by a goodly detachment of Korean laborers, incidentally). It was overcome by a formidable American invasion assisted by almost unopposed air and naval support, but at such a cost of life that it provoked a poltical storm in the U.S.A. It had an acrid anti-climax, not commented upon here. Two hours after “victory,” the British flag was run up over the premises; what thousands of Americans had been killed and wounded to take from Imperial Japan was virtually a coconut plantation owned by a London-based soap and detergents company. Even contemporary Time magazine, which Prof. Fussell does not like, reported this in an issue printed after the battle.

In another department the author of War Time must be congratulated for a brilliant piece of Revisionist detective work. This is the disclosure that one of the war’s most mawkish propaganda works of sentimental blubbery, the book My Sister and I, was not written by a Dutch lad describing the awful German hordes “raping” his homeland in the 1940s (a variation and new wrinkle on the similar tear-jerkers about the Germans in adjoining Belgium in 1914), but by an American editor of a major publisher right in the safe and secure haven of his New York City editorial premises, enough to make a propaganda-balloon-buster positively glow. One might hope that this would lead to a deep investigation of a hundred or so other books produced in the U.S.A. and Britain 1939-45; who knows what absorbing scandal such an enterprise might produce. The successful foisting upon the public of one knee-slapper should suggest the perpetration of others, in analogy with the conclusion that observing a rat on a farm indicates the presence of many more. And in view of the American avidity for the outpourings of mountebanks, blatherskites and snake-oil-sellers over the decades, there could be the makings of a veritable industry of disclosure of fakes (such as Leland Stowe’s 1940 journalistic inventions that German success in Norway was due to a plenitude of native Norwegian traitors.)

In a book which tries to concentrate on states of mind brought about by reaction to various wartime realities, attention to the “common soldier” obviously bulks heavily, despite the score or more of substantial deviations from this expected concentration. As a consequence one might expect that various topics would get more attention than they do, especially the pathologies of armies and related wartime behavior, which after all is advertised in the very subtitle of the book. But there are some.

For those with long memories or an interest in literature, it seems obvious that the direct ancestor or inspiration for Chapter 7 is the celebrated novel by John Dos Passos, Three Soldiers (Doran, 1921), with its top-heavy concentration on the subject of “barracks pettiness” and the endless aggravations of the minutiae of day-to-day army life, the continuous perpetration by the lower chain of command of irksome and often enraging trivial impositions resulting in what one World War One era writer in another context described as a residue of “sullen masses of animosity.” A contemporary reviewer of Three Soldiers (E.L. Pearson, in The Independent, October 1, 1921, p. 16), remarked, “all the profanity and obscenity of talk in the barracks is reported with the pedantic accuracy of a dictaphone,” and perhaps there will be readers of War Time nearly 70 years later who find this same quality (though they might style it “vulgarity” rather than “profanity” or “obscenity"). Such readers may agree with the First War Establishment luminary, Coningsby Dawson, and his complaint in the New York Times (October 2, 1921) against Dos Passos for his “intemperance in language” and his “dismal vituperation,” in applying similar strictures to Fussell. There may, even today, be readers of this chapter in War Time who will react in the same way as the famed literary critic Henry Seidel Canby predicted concerning Dos Passos' work, that “dainty readers” might be “shocked” and others might forbid their youth to read it, but in view of what has transpired in domestic mores in the interim between these two books, the latter may be little more than the traditional “corporal’s guard.”

The brief relation on desertion in Britain at the moment of the invasion of France in 1944 merits more attention to this subject, and a note on its subsequent neglect. A related topic is the massive misappropriation of Army supplies and participation in the civilian black market in more than one region of Europe during hostilities. Carl Dreher, a widely published engineer and three-year veteran of the Army Air Force, remarked in an article in the Virginia Quarterly Review (Winter, 1947) that it is questionable whether any army in history ever looted itself as did that of the U.S.A. in France, presumably in the concluding calendar year of the war. Time reported on one occasion that AWOLs and deserters stole a whole train in the environs of Paris. It was repeatedly reported that many military personnel were known to have sent home more money than they had been paid, while Steven Linakis, in his book In the Spring the War Ended (Putnam, 1965), which certainly compares with the work of James Jones, buried in novel form an additional account of widespread looting of supplies for sale to Belgians by AWOLs and deserters after V-E Day. Linakis' mention of “Slovik” reminds one that Prof. Fussell does not cite William Bradford Huie’s The Execution of Private Slovik (Signet, 1954) and the entire subject of desertion in aspects unrelated to the exploitation of goods-starved civilian-war-zone Europe.

Fussell likewise neglects similar evidences of less than lustrous elan. Obviously in the Pacific island war a different situation existed, as there was no place to flee to upon becoming AWOL, but the New York Post writer John Hohenberg, in his book New Era in the Pacific (Simon & Schuster, 1972), brought up the subject of “insurrections” among American troop concentrations in the Far East in the closing weeks of the war in Asia. If someone is going to get involved in a detailed account of the bleak and melancholy aspects of the war’s underside, it is suggested that topics such as these deserve ample airing. Among sources not found in War Time one might review the piece by John McPartland, “The Second Aftermath,” in Harper's for February 1947. “This was not a generation of heroes,” he declared in summary, having already demonstrated why he came to that conclusion.

All this brings up an umbilically-related subject for a book seriously concerned about behavior, but there is no substantive treatment in War Time about the administration of normal discipline in the Anglo-American armies, 1941-45. Since this was a matter of major concern in the First War, the silence merits attention. In testimony before the Senate Committee on Military Affairs February 13, 1919, Brig. Gen. Samuel T. Ansell testified that there had been 370,000 soldiers courtmartialed 1917-1918 (New York Times, Feb. 14, 1919, p. 1, and the shocked and outraged editorial on this figure in The Nation, Feb. 22, 1919, p. 267). A vituperative controversy erupted over this, and lasted all year, with the Wilson Administration and its military establishment stoutly defending the program, and Gen. Ansell (subsequently reduced in rank) a fierce and unrelenting critic. The newspaper coverage of this battle over the military discipline program (there were many harsh sentences for really trivial offenses) would if collected make a thick volume. Apparently the situation which prevailed 1939-45 was of a somewhat different order.

Going on to other affairs, especially absorbing is Prof. Fussell’s Chapter 9, “Type-casting,” a recapitulation of the generally circulated stereotypes of the adversary during the war, with heavy emphasis on the Japanese, and appropriately decorated with one of the more poisonous cartoons by Arthur Szyk, unparalleled by any other caricaturist of either of the World Wars for skill in dehumanizing the enemy, putting even the formidable Louis Raemaekers of 1914-18 well in the shade. The racial nature of the war in Asia was recognized by any number of people even before it spilled over to engage the U.S.A. in December 1941, and scores of stupid views were fully aired during the nearly four years of combat thereafter. In 1945, well before its end, the famed political figure Norman Thomas described the Pacific War as “an organized race riot,” and many of its outrageous excesses became widely known long ago, many spectacular examples and incidents finally being gathered together by Prof. John W. Dower in his book War Without Mercy (Pantheon Books, 1986); this work is cited once in War Time but its author is not listed in the index. An early memoir of this, at a time when the publication of such observations was deeply resented, was “One War Is Enough,” by Edgar L. Jones, in the Atlantic Monthly for February, 1946, which this writer found most impressive. But printed references to Japanese skulls ending in the USA as ashtrays and polished shin bones as letter openers could be found (in a local example, a Colorado dentist canceled the bill of one politician’s son in 1942 upon the promise of getting in return from him later a pair of Japanese ears).

People who had studied a modicum of Asian history and economics here in the decade before Pearl were aware of many preposterous stereotypes about the Japanese which are not to be found mentioned in War Time, and a few had more general consequences than simply feeding the superiority fantasies of the intellectually under-privileged; the latter was part of what had brought the war about in the first place, though ignorance of that was perhaps not really the fault of those doing the fighting. One nutty notion abroad in America, which this writer remembers hearing about the time of the Shanghai crisis in 1932, was that the Japanese suffered from a racial defect which made it almost impossible for them to maneuver an aircraft correctly. Several Japanese naval fliers brought down in excess of fifty U.S. and other “Allied” aircraft in the war, one exceeding the top U.S. “ace” by about 65; respect for the Japanese, as Prof. Fussell says, was very low but respect for his Zero fighter plane was quite high for some time, until Japan ran out of materials with which to make them. Another fairy tale whispered that they had been fed misleading ship-building plans, resulting in several capsizing upon launching. This must have entertained their naval architects and shipyards, which during the war built the two largest battleships the world has ever seen; the world’s largest aircraft carrier; the world’s largest submarine, capable of holding three aircraft; and, among other things, the world’s largest and deadliest torpedo, as the British found out off Malaya (December, 1941) and later off Ceylon (April 3-10, 1942).

It is too bad Americans did not read George Bronson Rea’s Shanghai-published English-language Far Eastern Review in the 1920s and 1930s (Franklin D. Roosevelt apparently did once in awhile, as he had an article in it in August, 1923 which was almost fulsome in its praise of the Japanese). They might have learned via thousands of photographs of the stunning urban and industrial development going on in Japan and might have been far better prepared for what happened than to go into war in 1941 thinking they were facing idiots and weaklings swishing around in kimonos, drinking tea and bowing all the time while putting together only light bulbs, Christmas tree ornaments and silk stockings. Even people who just play games know that it is a very grave mistake to underestimate an adversary.

A telephone booth might have held those American soldiers who were aware of the book-length calls for war with Japan 1906-1941, from Homer Lea through McCormick, Pooley, Millard. the American-in-China businessman-Sinophile Carl Crow, and related contributions from about forty others; the eerie prediction of 1941-45 by the British intelligence officer and student of naval architecture, Hector Bywater, in his famed bestseller of 1925, The Great Pacific War (Houghton Mifflin), which described a Japanese-American war raging between 1931 and 1933; and the tactical rehearsal in detail of the Pearl attack itself in February, 1932 by U.S. Admiral Harry E. Yarnell’s ship-based war-games aerial assault. It had taken Walter B. Pitkin 535 pages just to summarize the subject through 1920 in his Must We Fight Japan? (Century, 1921). But at about the time of the 1932 Hawaii war games, Helen Keller, speaking in John Haynes Holmes’s Community Church in New York City, suggested the emphasis was starting to switch from a U.S.-Japan war to a USSR-Japan war, which then dominated things for some five or six years, while a growing contingent of pro-Maoist, Stalinist and Trotskyite reporters started pounding the war drums in the American press. This was to be followed by a new wave of truculence beginning in the fall of 1937 with Pres. Roosevelt’s quarantine-the-aggressors speech (Americans were starting to mobilize for the defense of the Euro-American colonial system in Asia), a virtual paraphrase of one delivered a short time before by the U.S. Communist Party chief Earl Browder, and a heightening season of tension for four years after that.

It is obvious from what Prof. Fussell relates at a number of places in his book that the American soldiery in the Pacific had not the faintest idea of what they were confronting, reflecting among other things a lack of interest in a frightfully bad education for the previous 20 or more years, and had to substitute something for nothing, hence the stultified imaginations and internalizations of the ugliest of racial propaganda insinuations, all of which made things harder and worse as the war proceeded (and many of which are still in place despite the passage of 45 years). But the young men who were to do the fighting’s understanding of the buildup just before the December, 1941 showdown was fully as dim, if such were possible, as it was of all the history sketched above. If, for instance, there was a single American in Hawaii who had ever heard of Kyatsu Sato’s book, A Japanese-American War Is Imminent, issued in Japan and reviewed here by Walker Matheson five months before Pearl (The Living Age, July, 1941, pp. 437-38), he would have been a Western Hemisphere intellectual standout.

Going on to other things, Chapter 13, “With One Voice,” is an entertaining discourse on popular culture during hostilities, both in the armed forces and the civilian world. This also excites comparison with the First War. What a literary veteran of the 1917-18 time, James Rorty, described as the “herd rhythms” of the general public and the soldiery in those days were truly awful, and there were in excess of three score of utterly execrable “songs” perpetrated on America and the world (some sold in the millions), especially by the phonograph, to prove it (how could you beat the likes of “Hello Central, Give Me No Man’s Land,” “When Tony Goes Over The Top,” and “Mammy’s Chocolate Soldier"?). There is no indication of it in War Time but in the six weeks after Pearl the composers of the land copyrighted about 300 new songs, a very large number incorporating vicious and malevolent racial and ethnic abuse, obviously directed at raising public hackles and universal murderous sentiment. But not one of them faintly approached the status of a war propaganda sing-along such as “Over There” by George M. Cohan (big in 1917, nearly ignored by the industry in 1918), and few were ever performed anywhere. It was the utterly unmartial that stuck this time, and so distressingly sentimental and treacly that the totality was an incitation to desertion. It is additionally ironic that what Prof. Fussell describes as the Second War’s “singing anthem,” the “Beer Barrel Polka,” was a pre-war importation from Czecho-Slovakia, performed by a Prague musette-orchestra, and was on the juke boxes of the country nation-wide as a wordless instrumental number well before a set of lyrics in English were supplied and generally sung in accompaniment.

A generous part of War Time is Prof. Fussell’s fond memorial of and tribute to wartime literature, all of Chapters 15 and 16 (and parts of others, for that matter), the former being devoted primarily to Cyril Connolly and the inception and contents of the remarkable London magazine Horizon, which well preceded U.S.A. wartime involvement. That this should be done is entirely proper in a volume by a distinguished professor of English literature with an education spanning the Ivy Leagues of both coasts, from matriculation in the nucleus of the Claremont Colleges in California to the terminal doctorate from Harvard.

One is again impelled to recall the 1917-18 experience while reading this charming reconstruction. The second time around the war government did not create an agency to police and censor the armed-forces reading, like the First Wares War Library Service, with its perfumed and denatured reading manual, Books In Camp, Trench and Hospital (2 editions, 1917 + 1918). But it had a much more sophisticated guide through the corral in the shape of the publishing industry’s self- policing and self-censoring Council on Books In Wartime, which blanketed both armed forces and home front with millions of copies of laboratory-tested and inexpensively processed books calculated to boost “morale” as well as to sell political positions and other things, including recreation and what the author designates as “diversion.”

He is far too realistic, however, to suggest that the Council’s highbrow literature was the general fare of the soldiery at large. On p. 250 he frankly declares, “the comic book was the book of the war,” “the favorite reading in the armed forces.” Even this represents an advance in literacy on the previous war, however. In 1919 the War Department released figures indicating that one out of every four of those registering for conscription in 1917-18 between the ages of 21 and 31 had been unable whatsoever to read or write, some 700,000 (New York Times, February 18, 1919, p. 11). Those barely able to do either undoubtedly were a much larger number, especially in view of over 24 million ultimately registered by the end of the war in a somewhat expanded age spread. This illiteracy statistic, which got wide attention in the nation’s post-war press, was responsible during the years 1919-23 for the first big drive to bring about the inclusion of a Department of Education in the federal government. (It is standard narrative that the decision to build an army out of conscriptees rather than volunteers was an idea of the Chief of Staff, General Hugh Scott, and impressed upon War Secretary Newton D. Baker, who “sold” the idea to Pres. Wilson. All dictionaries concede that the origins of the slang term for World War One American soldiers, “doughboys,” are “obscure,” but seem never to have contemplated this word in relation to the name of the key figure in the mass roundup of American manpower. One must assume dragnets of such vast scope will always uncover a lot of things those responsible for administration thereof wish they had not found out.) Whatever may be the situation, by 1941 we had a vast legion with at least a rudimentary vocabulary (word counts by specialists published in such sources as the Quarterly Journal of Speech calculated that Pres. Roosevelt’s famed “fireside chats” to the nation 193341 consisted almost entirely of the most common 900 words in the English tongue), and found that range of expression satisfied by cartoon magazines.

The author pays proper obeisance to the contemporary conventions and fixations re “race” and ethnic considerations which have loomed ever so much larger in the last 30 years, and manages to read history backward a bit in “presentist” fashion in so doing, finding sinister things in the spread magazine advertising of the 1940-45 time, in what was a quite innocent context then and of course seen as so abhorrent today, especially in the super-hypersensitive Halls of Poison Ivy. It is an aspect of unending tendencies to adjust the past to the present, reflected on an obvious level by the laying low of statues, renaming of buildings because the original designates have fallen into disrepute for something done long ago now thought to be shameful, expunging of past awards and honors, retroactive cancellation of university degrees and other similar efforts to demonstrate the higher degree of purity now prevailing in public affairs and the superior sanctity in perception of righteousness. Here it has become “trendy” not only to deplore the actions of predecessors, which is bound to take place in reassessments of what things mean, but also to make positive physical changes in the landscape and alterations in the printed record to emphasize that contemporaries have not only become penitent in their name ex post facto but are willing to consider them to be non-persons in the effort to make it evident that “conversion” to a more holy state of ceremonial conscience has been effected. This impulse not only encourages the alteration of the record: it subtly attempts to include in the record things that never took place.

It used to be a conviction generations ago that the only certainty upon the outbreak of war was that one side would not win. Modern wars are mainly lost by both sides, though it takes awhile for this to be realized. In first shock of apparent “victory,” however, the “winners” are posed no questions nor ever expected to answer any, while the defeated ("victory is with the defeated,” wrote the 16th century German scholar Sebastian Franck) have to answer for everything, including a range of things that should have happened if they did not.

(Many people have difficulty distinguishing what they have experienced from what they have imagined, and in wartime this becomes a widespread disability, partially reflected in such consequences as wondrous fabricated inventions conjured-up apparitions and narrative filled with fictions, left to be undone when [and if] sobriety returns and those who have lost their heads find them again.)

In dwelling on the diversions of the armed forces of 1940-45, however, Fussell does not lean backward to examine any possible relation between then and now in another pressing matter of almost total absorption on the part of those of our moment, like “racism,” namely, drugs. Preoccupation with alcohol and drunkenness as a distraction is another social fact with heavy echoes of 1917-18, but Prof. Fussell fails to pick up any strain of involvement with the hard narcotics or even marijuana, already a national recreation well before the start of world hostilities in 1939. We know World War I sent home to the U.S.A. a substantial cohort hooked on morphine, largely resulting from primary exposure in French front-line medical stations and hospitals, where it was a routinely administered painkiller. And Paris police submitted a memorandum to the Wilson government in the summer of 1920, first published here in the administration’s Commerce Reports and filtering thereafter into the general press, claiming that 1,500 U.S. deserters were making a living at criminal enterprise in Paris and vicinity supplying guns and deriving their income “chiefly from the illicit sale of drugs.” Though profoundly embarrassing and outrageously unacceptable socially in the American scene (a drunk in the family was admitted as casually as one with bad eyesight, but who ever acknowledged a dope addict?), hard drugs were as big in the Prohibition era as was booze, even if this phenomenon still lacks a decent chronicling. Maybe someone will get around to this some time, but the subject is hardly a recent topic (vide the famed “war on drugs” waged by the League of Nations in 1924-25 and thereabouts, while the 1909 “war on drugs” has long been forgotten).

Readers with a fair grasp of economic history will surely assess Prof. Fussell as an amateur at that kind of enterprise, and the part of his book dealing with the home front is the weakest. Only 15 when the war began and barely 20 when wounded in combat in 1945, the author obviously had no personal experience of any significance in the complex rat race of induced administrative shortages, rationing, price controls, evasion, product degeneration and alteration, black market operations, criminal expertise of several kinds and a variety of related subjects which were a part of the economic experience here (he manages to mention a couple.) War Time does not come within many magnitudes of the chapter-and-verse excoriation one finds in such as Prof. Fred A. Shannon’s America’s Economic Growth (3rd. ed., Macmillan, 1951.) (The American standard of living declined markedly 1942-45 despite the flood of money which war production bestowed upon the populace.) His brief reportage on the gray, gritty bleakness of early '40s wartime Britain is good, but another part of it sounds like a remembrance-of-upper-middle-class-dinners-past, though lacking Proust’s obsession with cauliflower.

Fussell’s strong suit is analysis of advertising in American magazines of the war era, but he neglects the part played by advertisers, not in trying to sell the war and everyone doing their part, but in trying to prime future consumers for the period after the war, a sorry ploy grossly overplayed by all. As Prof. Shannon remarked acidly, “The 'golden postwar future' consisted of the ball-point pen.” As for economic crime and the home front economy, we still have only a partial picture of that even now. The fortunes made by organized crime out of the war have been partially documented (see for instance the Valachi Papers); as the implacable Mafia-pursuer, Ralph Salerno, put it, “World War Two came as a godsend to the Mafia.” On the legitimate side we may, some decade, get as clear a picture of what happened domestically as we had of 1917-18 by as early as 1925. The Senate Investigating Committee chaired by Harry S. Truman of Missouri in 1942, while revealing some $50 billion had already been skimmed off war contracts as “slush,” quoted one company executive testifying before it as saying, “If it had not been for taxes, we could not have handled our profits with a steam shovel.” (Shannon, op. cit., p. 841.)

There have been many eloquent statements across the years describing war as the occasion for the ultimate in sacrifices. War is also the occasion for the achievement of the ultimate in swinery, and the rise to prominence, according to the famed British liberal, John Bright (1811-1889), of the worst of a nation’s leadership class or pool. Pondering this leads one to dwell for a moment upon the observation by Frank Moore Colby, this reviewer’s favorite 20th century literary critic, that “Some of the best reasons for remaining at the bottom come from looking at what is at the top.”

Prod Fussell’s concluding chapter seems to have impressed early readers most, especially the gripping episodes of carnage quoted by him from various witnesses. In the main this depiction of outrageous incidents of gore and dismemberment seems to have borne in on particularly those who have no evident reading experience in World War One literature on the subject. Recommended are the books by Ellen La Motte, Georges Duhamel, Henri Barbusse, Andreas Latzko, Philip Gibbs, Roland Dorgelés and Ludwig Renn, among thirty or more memoirs which exceed what is at hand in sustained ghastliness, all but Renn appearing in the first wave of 1916-20 literary disclosure of the 1914-18 Schrecklichkeit. (Later in the decade there is a second surge which really does not compare with the earliest on record, though one may suggest the later books are more elegantly written.) It may be added, however, that as gruesome as are the incidents in War Time, anyone who had ever read reports of or talked to men attached to Graves Registraffon units might recall a far lengthier string of just as compelling recitations, and know that a vast number of soldiers' graves in combat lands contain only pieces of their bodies, and sometimes very little. They may also know that an uncounted multitude not only were never identified but never were reconstituted sufficiently to make possible a formal burial, as at Verdun, let alone the legions lost at sea. The World War II story, especially on the Eastern Front 1941-45 and, during much of the war, in Asia and the Pacific, may probably exceed a good part of 1914-18 if ever comprehensively told.

In a subject directly related to the above, there is no sustained discussion of the demographic impact of all the World War II loss of life upon America or Britain, let alone the rest of the world, in War Time, probably a reflection of its contemporary unfashionableness ("We have lost our best men,” wailed a French letter writer to the editors of the American weekly The Nation early in 1919). Nor has anyone else since 1945 ever tried to describe the horrendous dysgenic consequences of the war to the human species as was developed with such ominous emphasis during World War I by the globally distinguished Stanford University biologist and educator, David Starr Jordan.

Since virtually no one took the time to look around after 1945 before the newest stages of perpetual war for perpetual peace set in, contemplating demographic consequences simply did not take place, neither in the manner of Dr. Jordan, nor the famed Red Cross figure, Homer Folks, whose The Human Costs of the War (Harper, 1920) was exceeded by no other memoir in exhibiting what the just-concluded conflict had done to the race, and certainly not as in the furious books of Duhamel, The Life of Martyrs and Civilization: 1914-1917 (the English titles of the translations), published here by Century in 1919. Duhamel was so repelled and disintegrated by what he had to cope with as a front line surgeon that he exploded in the conclusion of the second title above (which won a Goncourt Prize in France in 1918), “I hate the twentieth century as I hate rotten Europe and the whole world on which this wretched Europe is spread out like a great spot of axle- grease.” The somber and morose assessments of these and others did not happen a second time, while the slack was immediately taken up by “defense” and the Cold War expansion into the affairs of those who permitted it or welcomed it, or who could not do anything about it. So it was no wonder that after 1945 there developed an approach which ignored demographic arithmetic and qualitative re-considerations, while assisting the emergence of a class of ideological desperadoes and related theoretical strategic “megadeath intellectual” assassins who coolly measured how many tens of millions might conveniently be sacrificed in the sustaining or extension of what was conceived as “freedom” and “democracy.” Their assumptions seemed to be that it made no difference as long as the surviving breeding stock consisted of anyone resembling humans, and that no matter how physically or mentally defective a residue, the survivors could be confidently depended upon to swell a pool of offspring incorporating the joint qualities of Hercules and Isaac Newton. The assiduous peddling of and the mindless belief in the notion that things can only go up, never down, has helped bring about the decline or demise of more than one people and nation

In putting together this estimate and examination of War Time it was considered proper to leave for the last a look at the religious dimension of the war era, but this aspect, which stands so large in sketching in the final outlines of the Great War (as Prof. Fussell calls it throughout), is almost too brief to warrant a reflection, let alone a comparison with the earlier combat. There has been no Preachers Present Arms (1933) dealing with World War II ("Bloodthirsty Preachers: How They Fanned War Fever in 1914-18,” as Newsweek so succinctly summarized Ray Hamilton Abrams' book). In War Time the subject is mainly represented by a few pages in Chapter 16’s condensed literary history of the war, stressing the U.S. experience, and what perhaps the publishing industry was wishing the troops were reading, predominantly references to inspirational uplift and related morale-propping messages and narratives, mainly biblical and historical, with very little contemporary input (there were echoes of the first war to be encountered here and there, to be sure, such as the declaration in London by the Archbishop of York, quoted by Time of January 29, 1940, “We are fighting for Christian civilization,” along with rather frequent assertions from Anglo-American clerics about how “righteous” it all was, but in the U.S.A. there really was no Rev. Newell Dwight Hillis this time around, nor even a Rev. John Roach Straton.) And as a result there was not the exhausted mindlessness that followed November 11, 1918 and the four years of straying from the ways of peace that they were supposed to have been following, reflected in the books various theologians and preachers wrote or tried to write from 1919-21, a sad record of stupid and paralyzed incoherence which effectively baffled those who read or attempted to read this material. Essentially, what happened in the aftermath of 1918 and of 1945 was so different that dwelling on the subject is to risk starting another book.

* * * * * *

Early in 1958 this reviewer wrote a lengthy dispatch to the editors of the magazine Liberation, suggesting among other matters the necessity of a systematic and extended debunking of World War II, and that if such did not take place in the manner of 1916-36, the citizenry had better start getting themselves measured for lead underwear. The editors gave my discourse prominent disclosure in a subsequent issue, but it inspired nothing, and a few years later, in the regime of the sainted John F. Kennedy, Americans all over the country were tearing up their driveways to install atom bomb shelters. And enough has been published in the last 30 years cringing over the possibility of a planet-wide atomic barbecue to fill a substantial library.

The war in need of deflation now having taken place so long ago, peculiar problems, provoking indeed grounds for a moment of hesitation, arise. Repeated surveys made in recent years of general levels of information prevailing reveal that there are young people who have grave difficulty placing the Second World War in the right century, let alone knowing who fought it and where. Undoubtedly there may be some among them that believe the First World War was one of the 12th-century Crusades, and if pressed, on a multiple choice test, might identify Belisarius as a junior officer under General George Patton at the Battle of Waterloo, and Procopius as a saxophone player in Duke Ellington’s orchestra at the time of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In the meantime these ignoramuses are part of those who live in a world political community which has done little for four and a half decades except react to the debris and the officially-peddled legends of 1939-45, while occasionally scratching their chins and pates wondering what all about.

Despite this degeneracy, every now and then a book comes along stirring up the hope once more that the campaign suggested above might start materializing. War Time is the latest. Though it is obvious such an intent is vastly remote from the author’s object in writing it, nevertheless it is pleasant to contemplate it as the putative initial entry of a season of similar works (maybe 30 more would seem about right) to memorialize World War II in a manner attractive to the general Revisionist impulse.

All times are disorderly. The notion that human affairs move in the direction of something called “normalcy” is a hallucination. The most profound and impressive modern sources of disorder are big, long wars, the aftershocks of which roll across the world for generations in a series of massive political tidal waves, though few of the politicians and warriors live to see the consequences of their endeavors, or understand them if they do. On the literary, artistic and intellectual level, however, the reverberations of these epic struggles last far longer and probably will never entirely vanish as long as memory activated by curiosity bulks so large a part of the human psyche (it was Samuel Johnson who remarked that curiosity was “one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind.") War Time embodies, at least in some measure, the inevitable, and possibly salutary, disquiet which must arise, above all for citizens of the “victorious” nations, in contemplating the reality of the Second World War.

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 59-80.