The Great War and Modern Memory: Paul Fussell Reconsidered

The Great War and Modern MemoryAt the bottom of this post is a video of the group reading at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn I moderated on Veterans Day. Below I’ve named my fellow readers, all veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan who are now active authors in print or on-line. I’ve listed the units with whom they deployed, along with their reading selections and the time their appearance can be found on the video. Each of us chose a passage from a work by a writer who fought in World War I or was profoundly affected by the war:

Introductions by Louis Crawford, Brooklyn Reading Works, and Brandon Willitts, Words After War.

Me, US Army officer, Embedded Transition Team advisor in Afghanistan:  Introduction of readers.

Eric Nelson, US Army officer, 173rd Airborne Brigade, Afghanistan: Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”; Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (13:00).

Lisbeth Prifogle, USMC officer, aviation, Iraq:  Frederic Manning, Her Privates We (19:20)

Jacob Sotak, US Army sergeant, Provincial Reconstruction Team, Afghanistan:  Albert-Paul Granier, Cockerels and Vultures (27:00)

Me:  Wallace Stevens, “Lettres d’un Soldat” (33:00).

Mariette Kalinowski, sergeant USMC, logistics and convoy ops, Iraq: Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (35:00).

Adrian Bonenburger US Army officer, 173rd Airborne Brigade, Afghanistan:  Louis Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night (43:00).

Nate Bethea, US Army officer, 25th Infantry Division, Afghanistan: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (47:00).

Vic Zlatanovic, US Army enlisted, 173rd Airborne Brigade, Afghanistan: Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier (57:20).

Me:  Joyce Kilmer, “Rouge Bouquet” (1:06).

An obvious first link between Great War authors and contemporary war authors is the essential literariness of the effort to understand military experience. World War I authors such as Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon were highly educated and extremely aware of the British literary tradition they hoped to join and further with their works. Likewise, today, so many war authors are the products of first-class undergraduate educations and graduate MFA and journalism programs. Consciousness of what’s come before—not just of World War I authors, but also the great writers who came out of World War II and Vietnam—is also a feature distinguishable everywhere in contemporary war writing. There are other affinities, too. While listening to my fellow readers at the Old Stone House, I noted their attraction to passages that exposed the horror of World War I combat, reflected enormous disillusionment with stated national aims and ideals, and articulated the profound difficulty of getting on with life after the fighting was over. These are all real points of connection that suggest World War I literature remains relevant to our modern way of thinking about war and its consequences.

The scholarly work that explains best the influence of World War I and World War I writing is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. First published in 1975, Fussell’s study was groundbreaking in its time and seems not to have aged a bit. Its greatness lies not just in Fussell’s attention to the ideas and language of authors of memoirs, poetry, and fiction about World War I, which is fantastic, but in the way he documents wholesale, pervasive shifts in habits of expression and thought throughout British and American culture as a result of the war. That World War I helped usher in our modern era is not news, but no one has as precisely or substantially documented exactly how as well as Fussell, who served as an infantry lieutenant in World War II before commencing a long, distinguished career as a professor at Rutgers and Penn.

Astonishing insights and claims jump off of almost every page of The Great War and Modern Memory. For example, Fussell writes, “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected…. But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing … myth which had dominated the public consciousness for a century. It reversed the Idea of Progress.” Expanding on this grand claim, Fussell continues:

Furthermore, the Great War was perhaps the last to be conceived as taking place within a seamless, purposeful “history” involving a coherent stream of time running from past through present to future. The shrewd recruiting poster depicting a worried father of the future being asked by his children, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” assumes a future whose moral and social pressures are identical with those of the past. Today, when each day’s experience seems notably ad hoc, no such appeal would shame the most stupid to the recruiting office. But the Great War took place in what was, compared with ours, a static world, where the values appeared stable and where the meanings of abstractions seemed permanent and reliable.

Irony, Fussell claims, was the dominant mode of the great World War I writing tradition—the revealed horror of war giving the lie to innocence and idealism—and remains the tradition’s gift to war writers afterward. But there were many more ways that the war changed the way not just war writers, but everyone, thought about not just war, but everything. Fussell hits the jackpot of literary scholarship by plausibly connecting epochal shifts in the ways that people think, act, and use language with the cultural conditions that engendered such change. World War I, for example, was when governments and the popular press developed a quasi-official language of euphemistic high-diction to gloss over the senselessness of war slaughter: “warriors” instead of “soldiers,” “the fallen” instead of “the dead,” for examples. In the same vein, World War I was when official pronouncements, the popular press, and soldier-authors began to describe war using the language of sportwriting and the stage. It would take about two seconds to find in today’s war writing passages that channel the sporting spirit of plucky comradeship in the face of adversity or the sense that becoming a soldier and going to war is akin to an actor playing a role; Fussell says these trends first emerged in World War I popular and literary writing. Fussell’s boldest claim, perhaps, is that the great divide between opposing forces in France—dug-in trenches separated by a desolate “no man’s land”—instituted a cultural habit of binary thinking that simultaneously divided all life into antagonistic domains and drove caring people into endlessly fretting about making connections and overcoming difference.

That’s something to consider, for sure, but it gives a hint of Fussell’s stretch. It would take a lot longer piece of writing than a blog post to fully canvass Fussell’s claims, let alone connect them systematically to today’s war writing. That needs to happen, but what really needs happening is for a scholar as shrewd as Fussell to take stock of the growing body of Iraq and Afghanistan war literature and tell us what it has to tell us with the same acuity and detail as Fussell does for World War I writing in The Great War and Modern Memory. Scholarship on 21st-century war literature and popular writing about war awaits its coming-of-age.

Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford, 1975, 2000).

Two scholarly works that do address contemporary war literature are Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck:  Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (Cornell, 2011) and Ty Hawkins’ Reading Vietnam Amid the War on Terror (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2012). For more on World War I and World War II literature, see Patrick Deer’s Culture in Camouflage:  War, Empire, and Modern British Literature (Oxford, 2009), among others. While there’s a shortage of scholarly work on Iraq and Afghanistan war literature, there’s a vibrant, growing body of critical work on war and conflict photography that may help us understand war writing as well. I’ll cover those works in a future post.

Explore posts in the same categories: Art and War

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