At War With His Memories
By Anthony Hecht
Sunday, September 29 1996
This is an extraordinary memoir. Genuinely modest, candid about foibles and failures, it refuses to
posture or boast, and is self-deprecating, honest and, in retrospect, more cheerful than any reader
would be entitled to expect. It must immediately be added that the book is also an outraged,
embattled and blistering indictment of the standard pieties of the world. Reading it won my
perfect consent for three reasons. I am a great admirer of Paul Fussell's The Great War and
Modern Memory (National Book Award, National Book Critics' Circle Award), and this
new work satisfied high expectations; the book wittily and eloquently recalls
Robert Graves' enduringly powerful World War I recollections, Goodbye To All That; and
everything Fussell writes here bears out with the almost uncanny precision of memory recovered
from determined suppression the outlines of my own life.
Like a small epic, Fussell begins in medias res on March 12, 1945, as a 20-year-old
platoon leader of the 410th Infantry. Sudden orders, "impatient, shrill, and, finally, insulting"
send the platoon into a barrage of rifle and machine-gun fire, killing and wounding many,
pinning the rest to the ground, and closing page 8 with "an unspeakably loud metallic clang!",
after which the narrator's mind drifts painlessly back to before its own beginnings: to ancestry,
a serene, privileged, upper-middle-class California childhood, with admirable parents and siblings, full
of conventional deferences and hypocrisies, the stirrings of early erotic life, the primness of
pre-adolescence and its Penrod/Stalky & Co. innocence. This essentially taintless past,
clouded by nothing bigger than a man's hand, occupies the first, nearly lyric third of the book,
though through the cloud we have glimpses of OCS, the folly of standard training procedures, the
homicidal fury and carnage engendered by combat, and the stupidity of most of the brass,
who are never near enough to the front to understand what war really is.
"Division headquarters is miles -- miles -- behind the places where soldiers suffer abject terror
and madness and relieve the pressure by crazy brutality and sadism," Fussell both asserts and
demonstrates. His own induction into such knowledge was swift and terrible. "Suddenly I knew
that I was not and would never be in a world that was reasonable or just. To transform silly
conscripts into cold marble after passing them through unbearable humiliation and fear
seemed to do them an interesting injustice," he comments with the controlled understatement
that characterizes almost all the "combat," or second third of the book, though he does not
stint on precise descriptions of the sort of atrocities that are common to infantry experience.
And in this regard the book may trouble the squeamish or fainthearted.
"I learned to kill with a noose of piano wire and with a sudden knife-thrust up under the rib
cage. And I learned more. I learned to relish the prospect of killing this way and to rejoice in the
conviction of power and superiority it gave me. . . The junior officer in the infantry is in essence a
soldier, whose ability to kill . . . must be as efficient and as untroubled by scruple as the lowest GI's,"
the author remarks, and anyone who thinks this barbaric has no firsthand knowledge of infantry
warfare. What is ultimately shocking is the blinkered naivety of a society that can take decent-hearted
young men, transform them into unfeeling monsters, and then, if they survive, expect them to return to
civilian life as though nothing had happened. Examples of routine barbarity are presented with the
cool detachment to which front-line troops must aspire simply to survive: "a severe closing-off of
normal human sympathy so that you can look dry-eyed and undisturbed at the most appalling things.
For the naturally compassionate, this is profoundly painful, and it changes your life." Soldiers
reassigned to infantry duty, during such emergencies as The Bulge, sometimes attempted suicide.
The most graphic and moving section of the book is this one, and the reader rejoices for the
author's sake when he finally survives and is discharged, though he has suffered two
severe wounds, one to his back, another to his leg, the second of which had to be
operated on twice because the surgeon who originally removed shrapnel accidentally left some
odds and ends inside the wound when it was sewn up. (SOP: Standard Operating Procedures.)
After the war, Fussell, tense with distrust amounting almost to detestation of all authority, turned,
like many others, to the benign order and harmony of literature with something like a hope of
redemption: "We all hoped . . . that our efforts would help restore subtlety, civility and
decency after their wartime disappearance. This seemed almost a religious act, demanding . . .
complete emotional and spiritual commitment. The world was now to be saved from its folly,
brutality and coarseness of conscience by the techniques of close reading and disciplined education."
While in Fussell's case this devotion produced some wonderful books, it did not quiet his rage at
having been shunted "from college to professional killer, and then to benign professor."
His duties at his first teaching job (Connecticut College) were Augean, remedial, and paid
him $3,200 a year. Twenty-eight years of teaching at Rutgers is described in the manner of a
David Lodge fantasy of academic bumbling and lunatic incompetence: "When I left . . . I no
longer expected anything to be done right." (Yet later, inexplicably, he writes of the many
years "I'd spent happily teaching at Rutgers.") There are some other discrepancies. He praises
Ike, "the only general my troops and I respected -- for his kindness, his understanding of the
soldiers' needs and fears, his distance from vainglory and love of violence manifested in
General Patton," but forgets that as president Ike condemned Private Eddie Slovik to death by
firing-squad for desertion, though Fussell, in his account of a German attack on New
Year's Day, 1945, plainly says "Quite a few deserted," and poor, scapegoat Slovik was no
more guilty than they.
But Fussell's chief rage -- already chronicled in Thank God for the Atom
Bomb and Other Essays -- is reserved for those who pietistically deplore America's
destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and who claim that this shames our nation. "Because
we killed civilians?" he asks derisively. "We'd been doing that for years, as a matter of policy, in
raids on Hamburg and Cologne and Frankfurt and Mannheim and Dresden and Tokyo." Fussell
calls such expression of guilt "canting nonsense," and among the lives saved by this instantaneous
abbreviation of the war were Fussell's, William Styron's, my own, and those of countless Japanese.
Anthony Hecht's new book of poems, "Flight Among the Tombs," will be out later this year.
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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