Edited by Paul Fussell

Norton. 830 pp. $24.95

By Bernard Knox

NOTWITHSTANDING its horrendous previews on such battlefields as Antietam-Sharpsburg and Cold Harbor, modern war, with its industrial production of sophisticated instruments for mass killing, really began in 1914. This is the starting point for Paul Fussell's anthology, which opens with Rupert Brooke's welcoming hymn to the war -- "Now God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour" -- and follows it immediately with Philip Larkin's "MCMXIV," which ends with the line: "Never such innocence again."

Fussell is uniquely qualified to compile this volume; a combat infantry veteran himself, he is the author of a classic work on the first World War (The Great War and Modern Memory) and has recently published Wartime, a book about the "psychological and emotional culture of Americans and Britons during the Second World War." Its last chapter is headed: "The Real War Will Never Get in the Books." Fussell has made sure that it got in this one. He has assembled, and provided with introductions, a rich collection of fiction, reportage, autobiography, poetry and private letters that brings vividly to life, too vividly at times, the combat realities of the First and Second World Wars, their interlude in Spain, and their sequels in Korea and Vietnam.

The Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, the result of popular resistance to a military coup backed by Fascist Italy and Germany, aroused enthusiasm among the left-wing intellectuals and writers of America and Europe, but most of those who, like Malraux and Orwell, actually fought on the Republican side emerged from the fighting with mixed feelings. "It was as if," Fussell writes, "the volunteers had to relearn the disillusioning lessons of 1914-1918, notably the point that modern war very seldom attains its announced purposes." In this case the success of the Spanish Communist Party in organizing efficient military formations and the prestige it acquired as a result of the steady supply of Soviet tanks and planes brought it to such a dominating position that it was able to ride roughshod over the democratic ideals for which the Republican side was fighting. Fussell's main contributors -- Bunuel, St. Exupery, Dos Passos, Orwell, Hemingway -- all reflect, in various degrees of emphasis, a mood of dissatisfaction and foreboding.

Fullest coverage is reserved for World War II, which was, in deaths, destruction and the numbers involved "almost beyond human conception" -- the heading of Fussell's introduction to this section. Only one of the statistics he cites is needed to justify the phrase: Two million men were engaged in the battle of Kursk in 1943. Even though there was general agreement in the West that the Axis was a force for evil that had at all costs to be defeated, there was no enthusiasm. Fussell quotes Robert Sherwood's remark that this war was "the first in American history . . . in which the general disillusionment preceded the firing of the first shot."

For the wars in Asia Fussell's heading is "Obscenity without Victory"; Korea, and still more Vietnam, were wars without "a clear moral mission justifying their suffering," and the resulting problem of lack of morale among the front-line troops has made them "an embarrassment to the military." In Vietnam the "normal irony practiced by troops in modern war" became an "irony . . . twisted and turned by hatred and anger into something close to sarcasm." One of his examples is the "mock business cards" dropped on his victims by the commander of a helicopter gunship: "Congratulations! You have been killed through the courtesy of the 361st" -- a sardonic comment on the fact that "the war seemed to be run along business lines, with quantitative results expected." This war, Fussell suggests, was in its style more than modern; it was "post-modern, pressing beyond 'modern' to something even more skeptical, problematic, and even nihilistic . . ."

The selections are for the most part extremely well chosen. Excerpts from many familiar (but indispensable) books appear -- Graves s Goodbye to All That, Remarque's All Quiet, Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, Douglas s Alamein to Zem Zem, Terkel's Good War, Hersh's My Lai 4, Herr's Dispatches. But there are many that will be new to most readers. Siegfried Sassoon's war diary, for example, was not published until 1982, and David Jones s great poem In Parenthesis is not as well known in this country as it deserves to be. Especially welcome is a long extract from Eugene Sledge s With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, an "authentic and unflinching" account of the Marine Corps battles on those islands.

On the other hand there are some surprising omissions -- Frederic Manning's The Middle Parts of Fortune, for example, which Hemingway called "the finest and noblest book of men in war that I have ever read." And the Spanish section gives a rather odd view of the war; the only pieces that deal with combat are concerned with the air force, the mostly inactive Catalan front (Orwell), and guerilla warfare (Hemingway's Sordo on his hilltop). These were all peripheral operations; the main war was fought by large infantry formations and with heavy casualties. One of the best accounts of it, written a few months after the events it describes, is Esmond Romilly's Boadilla, the story of a small group of English volunteers in the German battalion of the XIIth International brigade, ending in its almost total annihilation in December 1936 near the village of Boadilla del Monte, north-west of Madrid.

These are, however, minor cavils, the usual complaints any anthologist has to face. Fussell's book is a rich, rewarding survey of the war literature of the 20th century so far. It makes sobering reading. War, as the Latin inscription on the cannon of Louis XIVth's armies proclaimed, is the ultima ratio regum -- the last argument of kings. Readers of this book will see why it should always be the very last argument.

Bernard Knox, the retired director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, fought in Spain, France and Italy.