The Dead Sit Up
I cannot remember much, I cannot feel much. Maybe erasure is necessary. Maybe the human spirit defends itself as the body does, attacking infection, enveloping and destroying those malignancies that would otherwise consume us. (Tim O’Brien)
On Veteran’s Day, we are told only to honor those who have served this holy abstraction called a country through military service. This is an easy thing to do, though you wouldn’t know that from the way the government treats them. On Memorial Day, though, our work is much harder: we are tasked with remembering those who died in our wars.
This is a terrible duty for both the living and the slain. Since the dead live only through our memories, it requires great effort and no small amount of pain to do what is needed: to make them sit up in their graves and make them live again. What we usually do, instead, is to simply pause and let out a meaningless breath to show how sad we are at the circumstance of their death, but this is a cheap escape. We do not need to to make a display of our sorrow at someone’s death; we need to bring them back in the only way possible, by remembering what they were like when they were alive. That is what drives our grief, after all, the loss of the living, not the mere fact of the dead. What is wanted is commemoration, not observance. Combined with our tendency to mourn the deaths only of combatants, and not of innocent civilians — now as always the ones who suffer most in war — it’s hard to escape the impression that we’re doing something deeply wrong on Memorial Day, and it’s not the fact that we spend most of it drinking beer and overcooking steaks.
This Memorial Day is especially sharp-edged, because it was only a week ago that we lost Paul Fussell. He died on May 23rd in an Oregon hospice, two years shy of his 90th birthday, and while he did not die in war, we lost in him one of our greatest writers and thinkers about war, a man whose experiences of war shaped him into a brilliant and cynical writer, a man of inspiring directness with no patience for the kinds of lies and manipulations that saturate the air during times of war; a man who emerged from the horrors of battle determined to spend the rest of his life cutting through the self-delusions and frauds for which war left no room in his mind.
The Second World War, total and global as it was, killed worldwide more civilian men, women, and children than soldiers, sailors, and airmen. And compared with the idiocies of Verdun, Gallipoli, or Tannenberg, it was indescribably cruel and insane. It was not until the Second World War had enacted all its madness that one could realize how near Victorian social and ethical norms the First World War really was.
Fussell was still a teenager when he enlisted in the United States Army in 1943, and had just celebrated his 20th birthday when he arrived to command an infantry platoon in France in 1944. The bright son of a well-off business lawyer, he entered the war, as does everyone, with no conception of its meaning or its immensity. He had barely been in France for a week when he saw his first enemy casualties: the corpses of two young German soldiers, their brains leaking unprettily out of their heads. Fussell had to, in a single instant, both recognize and come to terms with the fact that he had a great deal of trouble distinguishing these two dead men from any of his good friends back home, and that he had been, directly or indirectly, responsible for their killing. He went on to fight with skill and bravery, winning a Bronze Star, until he was wounded in the ruined Alsatian village you see above and returned home. But the war changed him profoundly, and he could never escape the initial sensation he had on seeing those two dead men: that he had become inextricably entangled in something completely irrational and deranged.
If I didn’t have writing, I’d be running down the street hurling grenades in peoples’ faces.
Though he was academically talented, Fussell’s early career was marked by drift. He went from one place to another, unable to relate to anyone who had not experienced war — and barely able to tolerate those who had. He was gripped by violent rages; his first marriage fell apart. At a time when any admission of the psychological trauma war visits on its victims was widely considered a sign of weakness or malingering, he was unable to express the twin drives that consumed him: his reprehension and disgust at the waste and devastation of war (and the acceptance, even celebration of it by his countrymen), and his visceral distate for anyone who had not suffered through it with him. He knew that something was wrong, and he knew that wrongness had become pervasive in the culture in which he lived; but he could not put it together with the way war had beaten and broken him. He got by, writing readable but unmemorable academic juvenilia about mid-period English literature, until finally, the dam burst, and he was finally able to prod the nerve that had been aching him since he returned from battle. In 1975, he produced the stunning, essential The Great War and Modern Memory — one of the greatest books ever written about the experience of war and how it is reflected in our written culture. He had finally seized the central metaphor of his life, and would never write a bad book again.
What makes experience in the Great War unique and gives it a special freight of irony is the ridiculous proximinty of the trenches to home. Just seventy miles from ‘this stinking world of sticky trickling earth’ was the rich plush of London theater seats and the perfume, alcohol and cigar smoke of the Café Royal. The avenue to these things was familiar and easy on their two-week leaves from the front, the officers rode the same Channel boats they had known in peacetime, and the presence of the same porters and stewards provided a ghastly pretense of normality.
Fussell’s attitudes towards war shaped everything he would ever write from that point forward, and in losing him, we have lost one of the truest and most intelligent perspectives on war our country has ever produced. Fussell was hardly a pacifist, and found most of the protests against war to be unreflective, ignorant and selfish. But he never stopped howling against the waste and destruction of war, its pointlessness and horror and vast trashing of potential, against the way it strangled development, throttled progress, and reduced human beings to numbers on a ledger. Contrary to the moronic rebukes of the likes of Jonah Goldberg, who builds his reputation on lazily misunderstanding things, he recognized that “war never solved anything” is only half a phrase, its meaning entirely obscured without the completion of “that could not have been better solved by peace”. While his own experience of the war irrevocably tainted him and made him scorn anyone who had not suffered the same, he was on the advance guard of arguments against war that his inheritors would pick up like an abandoned rifle. He disdained the generations who did not serve, but he believed that the only possible reaction to our country’s half-cooked adventures in the Middle East was contempt and repulsion. He was that rarest of men: someone who understood and appreciated the uses of violence, but whose experiences of them made him incapable of disguising their meanness and terror with unearned praise and glory. He brought into the language of warfare the vitally needed concept of irony, famously pointing out that all wars are ironic because the nobility of their stated goals are always dwarfed by the tawdry suffering inflicted by their execution — and he never abandoned it.
Two classes only were in the consciousness of the British 8th Army infantryman in North Africa during the Second World War who delivered this eloquent account of them: ‘Sir, this is a fine way for a man to spend his fucking life, isn’t it? Have you ever heard of class distinction, sir? I’ll tell you what it means: it means Vickers-Armstrong booking a profit to look like a loss, and Churchill lighting a new cigar, and the Times explaining Liberty and Democracy, and me sitting on my arse in Libya splashing a fainting man with water out of my steel helmet. It’s a very fine thing if only you’re in the right class – that’s highly important, sir, because one class gets the sugar and the other class gets the shit.’
In his later years, Fussell would write more stunning books about the intersection of war, culture, and national memory: Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, his incredibly moving memoir Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, and his final work, The Boy’s Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe 1944-1945. But even when he would drift away from the subject of battle, he was always at war, and his perception of its divisions marked even books like Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear, the perceptive Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, and the memorably misanthropic BAD, or, the Dumbing of America. Fussell was a conservative, in the oldest sense of the word: he believed in responsibility, in the value of tradition, in preserving the old rather than reflexively championing the new, in history and its lessons, and in craftsmanship over salesmanship. But it would be a mistake to think of his conservative nature as in any way sympathetic to that of a movement Republican. He held Ronald Reagan in drippingly acidic contempt, calling him a phony and a capering clown. He had boundless sympathy for the poor, reflected in his own experience that the infantry are the poor of war, the resourceless and unconnected who were forced to bear its most terrible brunt as the chummy club crowd served coffee and snacks miles away from the front. Those who read Class as a sort of how-to guide for snobs must never have reached its final chapter, where he urges the intelligent, the creative, and the self-determined to liberate themselves, to abandon the “class racket” of ambition and anxiety and join the ranks of the classless, which “many can join who have not yet understood that they have received an invitation.” And while BAD constantly laments the “prole drift” that is degrading our culture, he does not, as most conservatives of the era would, use this as an excuse to attack and disenfranchise the poor. He places the blame squarely on the hustling rubes of the upper middle class and their bosses amongst the moneymen; it is their exploitation of the poor, and their constant application of the phony virtues of salesmanship to every aspect of life, that has brought us, he argues, to grief.
The blockbuster embodies the whole idea of bad, because it is empty of human value at heart and depends entirely on overstatement, succeeding only because supported by publicity. Instead of adult narrative and acting, it offers comic-strip motivations and an almost exclusive reliance on special effects, gratifying to the uneducated who have never learned to achieve excitement over anything but technology. As Peter Biskind has said, the object of the blockbuster is — should civilized adults actually see one — ‘to reconstitute the audience as children’. The obvious effect, in the absence of the counterweight of education, has been the infantilization of the electorate, resulting, in, among other things, the election of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and the agitation over flag desecration.
Fussell was no prescriptivist; his only program goal was to encourage everyone to spend every day other than the Fourth of July attacking the “phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant, or boring…the pretentious, the overwrought, or the fraudulent.” I’ll thus refrain from giving any specific advice about how to spend your time on Memorial Day (though if pressed, I would suggest that donating some money to Iraq Veterans Against the War might be a good start, and that their plans to “honor the dead, heal the wounded and end the war” are as good as any). But if you want to remember him, if you want to make him sit up from the grave and inhabit for a moment the world he left behind, you might start tomorrow by remembering that governments kill people, and they lie about it. You might hold them responsible for what they do and say, and remember that fake appeals to patriotism, indecent ignorance of suffering on all sides, institutional forgetfulness, and a chronic addiction to publicity and duplicity are tools used to make the good into the bad and the bad into the intolerable. Fussell believed that one of the true joys left in a society choking on “indiscriminate dollops of optimism and complacency” was to keep a clear eye on what was wrong, so that we could easily distinguish it from what was right. He’s gone now, but that idea doesn’t have to go with him.