Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Foot (soldier) notes: A look behind the media sanitizing of World War II

Last November, when Penn staged a high-IQ symposium commemorating the 70th anniversary of the World War I armistice, I casually wished aloud that combat infantryman and Penn prof Paul Fussell had compared and contrasted with Marine combat pilot Samuel Hynes their separate but equally horrific World War IIs.

In August 1989, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the beginning of World War II, Fussell has given much more than I could have wanted in The Real War: 1939-1945—An Experience in Horror and Madness.

It’s not hammock reading. But it’s the kind of thing that could give anniversaries a good name. I heartily second the Inquirer’s “A pox on anniversaries: Will ‘60s nostalgia never come to an end?” (July 21). “First Annual This” and Halls of / anything / Fame are Band-Aids that are easier to paste on an empty hand than it is to develop a real sense of history.

Fussell shows us how to commemorate in his brilliant essay. The main drift is that the war was so horrible that everyone who wasn’t in the combat zone uses every conceivable technique to avoid the reality of those horrors. He examines the synoptic photographic records of the war: Lo and don’t behold, you don’t see maimed bodies—unless they be of the hated enemy.

It was this kind of structural euphemizing that, Fussell says, “moved the troups to constant verbal subversion and contempt…They knew that in its representation to the laity, what was happening to them was systematically sanitized and Norman Rockwellized, not to mention Disneyfied.”

They knew, for example, that their World War I-vintage automatic rifles were slower and clumsier than the lighter German machine gun. Allied tanks were undermanned and under-armored compared with the Panzers. The Allies’ anti-tank mines were unstable in freezing weather, and in the winter of 1944-45 whole truckloads of them blew up.

The Western tradition of imaging war, with notable exceptions (say Goya on the Peninsular War), was touched up. In Fussell’s harrowing phrase, no “members were missing.” Modern weapons, like modern aircraft crashes, tend to make mincemeat of the bodies involved. You have to go to non-literary workaday memoirs to learn that soldiers were not always hit by bullets—they could be “wounded” by flying body parts.

American stay-at-homes could avoid such realities in ways that Europeans in the middle of the action couldn’t. People could go mad if this level of horror lasted for months, even years. And soldiers did go mad. The sub-literary genre of booklets to ease the entry of “replacements” into combat is amazing: “Everybody is afraid, but you can learn to control your fear.” Big help.

The casualty data are mind-numbing. “In six weeks of fighting in Normandy, the 90th Infantry Division had to replace 150% of its officers and more than 100% of its men. If a division was engaged for more than three months, the probability was that every one of its second lieutenants, all 132 of them, would be killed or wounded.

“For those being prepared as replacements at officer candidate schools, it was not mentally healthy to dwell on the oddity of the schools’ turning out hundreds of new junior officers weekly after the army had reached its full wartime strength.”

One of the most interesting aspects of his analysis is the way journalists were housebroken by the censors. Even Ernie Pyle is reduced to the stature of a hack, asking none of the threatening questions. War correspondence was a kind of cheerleading for hometown consumption.

Fussell’s essay has cleared up a puzzling reaction I got from a retired English professor three years older than I am. I had sent him a tear-sheet of a piece wallowing in the nostalgia of a revisit to the Pensacola Naval Air Station, where I had “served” 43 years before.

He said that he hated “pissant” stories of stateside “duty.” He had spent three years in Europe in “considerable discomfort” and he wanted to “puke” at such rosy recollections. I was stunned.

I had enlisted in the Navy at 17 in 1944, in a surge of patriotism, even before I had graduated from high school. But after eight weeks of boot camp and ten months of radar school, the war was over, and I awaited discharge at Pensacola.

The high points of my navel service were farting through my bugle when trying to sound Attention when Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal visited our base, and running a sailboat aground in Pensacola Bay.

Until I read Fussell, I had only the most abstract notion of the horrors of war. I don’t feel any guilt about the happenstance that I was born a year too late to wage war personally. But now I comprehend the bitter rhetoric of my friend’s “pissant” and “puke.”

Fussell’s chapter in The Atlantic was so good that it led me to the book Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (Oxford U. Press), of which Fussell’s is the concluding and conclusive chapter. Its leitmotif is that the bad media habits and cultural attitudes formed to fight the war still silently debilitate our society.

Faithful Fussell fanciers will want to journey to the New York Public Library (October 10 at 6 p.m., $5) to hear “The Poetry of Three Wars: World War I, World War II, and Vietnam.”

From Welcomat: After Dark, August 30, 1989

No comments: