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Paul Fussell was an infantry lieutenant during the Second World War. He was also a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania whose area of specialization was the 18th century. In his work, titled “Wartime”, Fussel seeks to explain the events of World War II, a conflict which he was personally involved in. Here, he unfolds a narrative which is both extremely personal and generally extensive. He examines the immediate effects of the war on both civilians and common soldiers. Nevertheless, his main focus is on the emotional and psychological atmosphere of the Second World War. He presents an analysis of the euphemisms which had to be dealt with during this war, the extreme aggravation of desire and some of the ways through which this desire was satisfied. But most importantly, Fussell emphasizes the damage which the Second World War left on people’s intellect, wit, individuality, honesty, and on other aspects such as ambiguity, discrimination, irony and complexity. This paper focuses on the emotional and psychological atmosphere of the Second World War as depicted in the work of Paul Fussell. In addition, it examines the immediate effects of the war on both civilians and common soldiers.
Fussell portrays the essence of the Second World War in a manner which no other writer prior to him has ever used. According to Fussell, the past fifty years had seen the Allied War being romanticized and sanitized nearly beyond recognition. He also says that Americans have never comprehended what World War II was really like (Fussell 3). He therefore seeks to explain them the real events through this piece of work. To him, the actual horrors of combat were concealed by purveyors of information throughout the entire war, whose main agenda was to heighten the morale of the men and civilians who were engaged in fighting. Fussell is not only disturbed by the lies of these purveyors, but also by the degree of unrelenting hypocrisy. Drawing from the veteran’s memoirs, literature and other pieces of history, he distinguishes the romanticized outlook of the war with the shocking truth of ‘a kill or be killed’ scenario which was faced by the combatants who often found themselves surrounded by the body parts of their colleagues (Fussell 5).
Fussell expresses his disgust at the prevalent acceptance of an over-romantic and simplistic view of a war which he refers to as the most dehumanizing of all the wars (Fussell 3). He depicts how the British and American soldiers, who originated from less regimented cultures, committed lots of blunders, such as killing their own people accidentally, as opposed to their Axis counterparts. He infers this view from the lack of identification of men who died in large numbers, and through the ways in which soldiers humiliated each other while they were away from the battlefield. Furthermore, he infers this scenario from the way the soldiers retreated into drinking, and how they officially campaigned to conceal all the aforementioned things. He also infers this view from the indifference that was expressed by most British and American people towards serious issues that were behind the war.
The early chapters of this book are concerned with the strategy, tactics and weaponry that were employed in the course of World War II. There is a fascinating commentary on the plodding switch from fluffiness and precision to mass production of more heavy weapons. It is also interesting to learn how the use of saturation bombing, cloudbursts of metals and flame throwers, and the advancement from rifles to more automatic weapons and other mass dispersal recourses, which required very simple skills to operate, such as the capability to point them to the target, is uncovered.
It is imperative to note that behaviour and psychology as well as insight and understanding are all intertwined in the personality of an individual. As such, they significantly depend upon the amount of knowledge which an individual possesses or gains, or the lack of it, as well as one’s experience. According to Fussell, the damage that was caused by this war on planes, tanks, ships, buildings and human bodies is quite obvious. What is not obvious, is the damage that was caused to people’s intellect, wit, individuality, honesty and other matters such as irony, ambiguity, discrimination and complexity. Throughout the early chapters of his book, Fussell examines several elements of the daily lives of both the British and the American soldiers, and the civilians in the course of the war. He depicts life in the armed forces as profoundly burdened with what he calls the “chickenshit” which familiar to veterans in the military; the changing vocabulary and language of that time (particularly in the very popular and ever-present obscenities existing in the armed forces); the perceptible dependence on any alcoholic drink that was available and the unavailability of sexual activity with the inclusion of pornography; different relationships and attitudes towards people of diverse nationalities and races among many other aspects of life during the wartime (Fussell 26). This approach draws the reader from the home front to the war front, and the reader is able to comprehend what the British and Americans experienced during the Second World War, what types of foods they ate and drank, which clothes they wore, the jobs which they did and how they did them.
Even though “Wartime” is viewed by many readers as a great piece of work, it is important to mention that it has not gone without criticism. Readers with a good grasp of the history of economics have always portrayed professor Fussell as an amateur in that field, often describing the component of his book which deals with the home front as the weakest. They argue that since Fussell was only fifteen years old when the war started and only about twenty years of age when he was wounded during the battle of 1945, he had no significant personal experience in the intricate rat race of the aroused administrative deficiencies, price controls, rationing, black market operations, evasions, different criminal expertise, product alteration and degeneration, and the assortment of other interrelated matters which formed part of the economic experiences during that time. As a matter of fact, he only mentions a few of these factors in his entire work. Furthermore, some critics believe that his brief reportage on the austerity of the wartime in Britain during the early 1940’s is good, but vague.
The tone of Fussell’s book is that of an angry person. He is particularly angered by the American people, who he believes should have had better knowledge of the bitter experience of the previous war. His view is that America should redefine and reinterpret the realities of the nation so as to arrive at public maturity.
None of Fussell’s books is ever complete without significant reference to the literary works of the time. As such, Fussell offers incisive remarks on the argument of Edmund Wilson with Connolly’s Horizon magazine, MacLeish Archibald, the war poetry of Louis Simpson and Jarrell Randal among many other aspects of literature during the wartime. As aforementioned, Fussell portrays the essence of the Second World War in a manner which no other writer prior to him has ever achieved.