Paul Fussell, R.I.P.

Paul Fussell died on May 23, 2012 at Medford, Oregon, aged 88. His smack-in-the-jaw prose makes it appear incredible that he should have succumbed to natural causes. A far more appropriate quietus for so aggressive a wordsmith would have been a bar-room brawl where the body-count climbed to double figures. Or, if not that, then a fate similar to that of Cody Jarrett in White Heat’s finale, where Jarrett has climbed to the top of a chemical tank and discharges his final ammunition into it, meanwhile yelling: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”

Fussell had, as is by now well known, a great deal to be aggressive about. Dreadfully wounded during March 1945 in Alsace, as a second lieutenant with the 103rd Infantry Division—the chunks of metal lodged in his back and leg ensured for him a generous disability pension—he later book cover image(Doing Battle, 1996) reflected on his wartime experience: “my adolescent illusions, largely intact to that moment, fell away all at once, and I suddenly knew I was not and never would be in a world that was reasonable or just.” His first sight of uniformed teenagers’ corpses (by this stage the Third Reich had resorted to putting Hitler Youth kids in Wehrmacht fatigues) gave him a still more profound shock than anything he had earlier undergone in combat:

“The captain called for me, and as I ran down a forest path, I met a sight even more devastating. . . . I saw dead children, rigged out as soldiers. On the path lay two youngsters not older than fourteen. Each had taken a bullet in the head. The brains of one extruded froma one-inch hole in his forehead, pushing aside his woolen visor capso like a schoolboy’s. The brains of the other were coming out of his nostrils.

“At this sight, I couldn’t do what I wanted, go off by myself and cry. I had to pretend to be, if not actually gratified, at least undisturbed by this spectacle of our side victorious. . . . It wasn’t long before I could articulate for myself the message the war was sending the infantry soldier: ‘You are expendable. . . . You are just another body to be used. Since all can’t be damaged or destroyed as they are fed into the machinery, some may survive, but that’s not my fault. Most must be chewed up, and you’ll probably be one of them. This is regrettable, but nothing can be done about it’.”

A man who wrote like that would never dare demand that Joe Public live in what Evelyn Waugh called “the desert of modern euphemisms, where the halt and lame are dubbed ‘handicapped’; the hungry, ‘underprivileged’; the mad, ‘emotionally disturbed’.” Like Orwell, Fussell considered lucid language an ethical duty, quite as much as an intellectual one. The struggle against cant permitted no curfew, no shore leave, no rest and recreation. It comprised physical combat by other means.

For Fussell, there could only be, deep down, two types of people: those who had undergone what he had undergone in the proverbial “blood, toil, tears and sweat”; and everyone else. Hence Fussell’s renowned 1988 essay, book cover imagewith its characteristically pugnacious title “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.” There he argued that those who denounced Hiroshima and Nagasaki on compassionate grounds were not, on the whole, those likeliest to suffer if those cities had been left alone. “Few of those,” he argued, “destined to be blown to pieces if the main Japanese islands had been invaded went on to become our most effective men of letters or impressive ethical theorists or professors of contemporary history or of international law.” The sole alternative, absent the A-bombings, was a full Allied invasion of the Japanese mainland, with everything this entailed in terms of Okinawa-style bloodbaths writ large. On Uncle Sam’s most optimistic estimates, such an invasion—as Fussell observes—would have taken until November 1946 before it elicited Japan’s surrender.

Here is how Fussell’s essay annihilates the pretensions of John Kenneth Galbraith, whose apple-polishing proclivities—one hesitates to come right out and say “physical cowardice”—clearly antedated Camelot:

“Galbraith is persuaded that the Japanese would have surrendered surely by November without an invasion. He thinks the A-bombs were unnecessary and unjustified because the war was ending anyway. The A-bombs meant, he says, ‘a difference, at most, of two or three weeks.’ But at the time, with no indication that surrender was on the way, the kamikazes were sinking American vessels, the Indianapolis was sunk (880 men killed), and Allied casualties were running to over 7,000 per week. ‘Two or three weeks,’ says Galbraith. Two weeks more means 14,000 more killed and wounded, three weeks more, 21,000. Those weeks mean the world if you’re one of those thousands or related to one of them. During the time between the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb on August 9 and the actual surrender on the 15th, the war pursued its accustomed course: on the 12th . . . captured American fliers were executed (heads chopped off); the 51st United States submarine, Bonefish, was sunk (all aboard drowned); the destroyer Callaghan went down, the 70th to be sunk, and the Destroyer Escort Underhill was lost. That’s a bit of what happened in six days of the two or three weeks posited by Galbraith. What did he do in the war? He worked in the Office of Price Administration in Washington. I don’t demand that he experience having his ass shot off. I merely note that he didn’t.”

“The farther from the scene of horror,” Fussell concluded, “the easier the talk.” Clearly Fussell would have relished explicating Galbraithian smugness to a conscripted American high school lad who has witnessed (Fussell’s words) “his own intestines blown out of his body and spread before him in the dirt while he screams and screams.”

book cover image His best-known book, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), remains as unclassifiable today as it was when it appeared. Military history? Literary history? Cultural history? It is all these things, and more. But what it never is, is the utterance of a chickenhawk.

Most of Fussell’s obituaries have concentrated on his war-related writings as if they alone warranted remembrance. At least Samuel Goldman, writing in The American Conservative, dwelled lovingly on book cover imageone of Fussell’s non-wartime books: Class: A Guide through the American Status System. This treasurable analysis appeared in 1984 and already seems, in some respects, as dated as the period’s hairdos, not least in its assumption that Anglophilia—with or without the House of Windsor—would remain hip. Of what U.S. household in 2012 could it be said, as Fussell says of 1984’s Anglophiles, that “dinner tables ring not just with passing references to the royal family but with prolonged earnest dissertations about Charles and Lady Di and Margaret and Anne and Andrew and little Prince William”? Yet on the very next page we find an anecdote that has lost none of its sting: namely, Fussell’s allusion to Jean Harris, who in 1980 slew her dietician lover Herman Tarnower, and then “hoped to disguise his vulgarity by strewing his waiting-room with British periodicals.” Let’s hear it for Mrs. Harris, who thereby proved herself an authentic descendant of Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

book cover imageSome of us revere, above everything else Fussell published, his 1991 philippic against loutishness and “prole drift” in all its forms: BAD: or, The Dumbing of America. Note the main noun’s upper-case typography, employed for good reason, as Fussell explains:

“What’s the difference between bad and BAD? Bad is something like dog-do on the sidewalk, or a failing grade, or a case of scarlet fever—something no one ever said was good. BAD is different. It is something phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant, or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright, or fascinating . . . Bathroom faucet handles that cut your fingers are bad. If gold-plated, they are BAD. Dismal food is bad. Dismal food pretentiously served in a restaurant associated with the word gourmet is BAD. Being alert to this distinction is a large part of the fun of being alive today. . . .

“When the radio commercial says, ‘If you desire to purchase,’ we recognize a BAD version of ‘If you want to buy’. . . . Pretentiousness and euphemism are thus the stigmata of verbal BAD. In a publicly egalitarian society like the American, they offer a special temptation, for here dignity and respect are sought by all but, in their genuine forms, available to few. Alexis de Tocqueville observed of the early United States, ‘Nowhere do citizens appear so insignificant as in a democratic nation.’ In this democratic nation, with few possibilities for inherited or ex officio signs of personal importance, the quest for individual social significance is unremitting, and if you’ve not earned it, you can affect it by the means chosen by most Americans, verbal pomposity.”

Fussell’s long academic career as specialist in eighteenth-century English literature imparted a rare dynamism to his loathing of today’s BAD poets. One who knew vast passages of Dr. Johnson by heart could hardly be expected to tolerate faddish poetasters’ worship of sheer BAD-ness. The real-life examples he gives would assuredly make even The Onion’s satirists want to admit defeat:

“If you have minimal literary talent but would like to acquire some of the prestige imputed, even today, to ‘poetry’, a way to go is to produce works with socko-erotic beginnings . . .”

Fussell even anticipated the aural nightmare of cellular telephony, with his account of “the Quacking Duck Phone (‘as practical as it is beautiful’), which looks like a harmless wooden decoy of a mallard duck. But when a call comes in, it quacks rather than rings, and its eyes light up as well. It is technologically as fancy as other BAD objects: ‘The “quacker” is adjustable to high, low, and off’.”

Suggesting funeral music seems inadequate for anyone who has supped full on that telephonic horror. Let Fussell’s cortège approach the graveyard not to the sound of anything militarily solemn, like Handel’s Dead March, but with the massed cacophony of modern ringtones. For no-one realized with greater thoroughness than Fussell not merely that “man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward”, but that BAD—like the poor—would always be with us. Ave atque vale, Prof.  

R. J. Stove lives in Melbourne, is editor of the quarterly Organ Australia, and is a contributing editor to The American Conservative.