Top critical review
3 people found this helpful
on 17 June 1999
Fussell's at it again; full of spleen and sarcasm and rarin' to bash holes in the soggiest paper bag he can find. This time he's going to "balance the scales" against the "sanitized" and "romanticized" Allied effort in WWII. It'll take a massive dose of literary Viagra to keep you up for this one.
For grins, this book takes up 330 pages to inform us that war is, uh, "hell." Thanks, Dr. Fussell. We all see much more clearly now. And guess what? The US government spewed out lots of propaganda. Gee. Really? And they lied about the efficacy of their weapons? No way! And thousands of people were killed by "friendly fire"? Get outta here! And America's intellectual life suffered, too (Europeans don't laugh!).
Fussy Fussell's commentary would have been fresh in, say, 1946. But anyone who has read even the sanitized versions of D-Day, of Guadalcanal, of Okinawa, of the Battle of the Bulge, not to mention the death camps, POW camps, the war between Japan and China, etc., etc. knows that it was not an exercise in rational behavior and that soldiers frequently returned with a part or two missing, a screw or four loose, or not at all. With a good half century of scholarship, of memoirs, of literature, of film between the war and this book, it assumes proportions of indescribable irrelevance; forgivable (almost) if not for the good doctor's unsufferable arrogance. The Good Soldier Svejk, All Quiet, Catch .22 and Slaughterhouse 5 exceed anything Fussell can even begin to attempt in terms of reducing wartime in the flesh to peacetime on paper.
But it gets better: the book's main argument is that war is unjustifiably, irrationally insane. No argument there, Doc. This doesn't quite mesh, though, with a previous essay of Fussell's, "Thank God for the Atom Bomb," in which he describes as rational and defensible the very logic he deplores as senseless in "Wartime." In the essay, the bomb was justified because it ended the war and got American soldiers safely back home. In the book, fighting a war for this purpose is described as nonsense. In debate we used to call this a contradiction. I wonder what Fussell calls it?
The book contains odd chapters: one details the lack of a coherent ideology (are ideologies ever coherent?), another details the obsession with "high mindedness," which, as you read, you discover is another word for "ideology." Huh?
Chapter 15 is a barbarically dull condensation of a British literary magazine published during the war. This technique surfaces throughout: lengthy plot treatments of other works to fill pages that, if left to Fussell's insights and experiences, would remain blank. A particular favorite is Eugene Sledge's book about Marine Corps actions in Pelelieu and Okinawa. In addition to using some of the same passages in both "Wartime" and "Thank God for the A-Bomb," Fussell waxes poetic: this book is "one of the finest memoirs to emerge from any war." Snag a copy of that book and have a read; it'll tell you all you need to know about Fussell's criteria for good writing.
And of course nowhere does Fussell discuss any of the rational, intellectual alternatives facing the US after Pearl Harbor. Nor does he take his "scathing critique" to its logical conclusion: that in the face of war's insanity, we should have shrugged off Hitler and Tojo, and played Quaker. Most hypocritical of all, he pretends that he and his class (whitey, Harvard snots) have not benefitted directly from the war. Royalties of the book are not being donated to German or Japanese war victims, we can be sure.
The "crazy war" argument doesn't wash abroad, either. Ask the Normans how they felt about D-Day; it's still the only area in France where you can say "American" and not be automatically held in contempt. Ask the Japanese, who now live under institutions much more democratic than the serfdom of the early Showa era. And finally, of course, ask Fussell: when, as a literary expert, are you going to give us some literature?