By Colin Woodward
I recently finished reading Paul Fussell’s memoir, Doing Battle, about his experiences growing up in Pasadena, California, as an officer in Europe during World War II, and as a teacher and scholar at Rutgers and Princeton. Fussell received his doctorate in English from Harvard, and he is best known for two books that combine history and literature–The Great War in Modern Memory and Wartime, the latter of which is about WWII.
The Great War won him a National Book Award. Yet, I liked Wartime more. And perhaps Fussell’s most accessible and humorous book is Class, about the class structure in the United States. Fussell was very funny, and I laughed more at Doing Battle than I probably should have.
Fussell is one of those people who you hoped would live forever. He didn’t of course, but his books have a timeless quality. I heard about Fussell in grad school via word of mouth from an English major friend of mine. I thought The Great War was a solid piece of scholarship, but I there was often too many trees and not enough forest. Wartime is funnier, and Fussell draws on his own experiences during the Battle of the Bulge to write about the wastefulness of what was the bloodiest conflict of all time.
Doing Battle suggests that life itself is a battle, but Fussell’s early days were idyllic. He grew up in Pasadena, a symbol of the golden promises of middle class America. He was raised during the Depression, but his father was a lawyer, and the Fussell family was free from want. His childhood was pretty puritanical. No drugs or sex. PF (as he called himself) attended Pomona College, founded by New Englanders and one of the best small liberal arts schools in the country. Rules were strict at Pomona back then, and Fussell went to war a virgin. After finishing school, he joined the army, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant.
The war forever changed Fussell. His experiences in the bitterly cold slaughterhouse in northern Europe destroyed his typically American sense of optimism. Fussell always had a bent toward the irreverent, but his experiences in combat would give him a new sense of the absurd. Fussell had no illusions about the war. He was dedicated and conscientious, but he resented the fact that Germany kept fighting, despite the fact that the war was decidedly lost for them by late 1944. Nevertheless, in December of that year, Hitler unleashed the massive offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge. It was the bloodiest battle Americans have ever fought, and it lasted for a month. Fussell survived the Bulge unhurt, but he was wounded in March 1945. By then, the war had less than two months to go in Europe.
Fussell’s account of the war is utterly without romance. For him, battle involved the cold hard work of the infantryman. No gallant charges or epic landscapes. Just death and fox holes and constant fear. At one point, he describes the unpleasant experience of having shit himself due to a bout of diarrhea. Other men suffered the same fate, and it was those kinds of experiences that brought men together. Fussell was an officer, but he writes that the role of a lieutenant was minimal. Lieutenants were mostly there for encouragement, not brilliant tactical decisions.
Fussell was no proponent of the “Good War” thesis concerning World War II. For him, there were only bad wars and worse wars. Any ideological meaning behind what the U.S. was doing wasn’t really considered by him or his men. Fussell did not see the U.S. as being in the war for humanitarian reasons. For him, the war was simply something the U.S., had to do. Despite the good that came from stopping Nazism, Fussell saw the war as inherently brutalizing, random, and stupid.
Fussell’s time in the hospital recovering from his artillery wound was for him one of his worst experiences of the war. He had to bunk next to a man who had had a colostomy. For Fussell, the man’s stench and complaining were unbearable. Fussell had been luckier with his wound, which did not permanently impair his life. However, Fussell’s rage at the man was symptomatic of the anger he would carry with him for years after the war.
When returned to the States, he attended Harvard as a grad student in English. He was a dedicated, even monastic student, but not gifted in foreign languages, which were part of the grad school curriculum. Nevertheless, he passed his qualifying exams and finished his dissertation. He went on to become an accomplished scholar.
Fussell’s book contains one of the better accounts of the bipolar nature of teaching. He groans about the constant preparing, grading, and stressing involved in teaching undergraduate writing. But he also calls his years at Rutgers happy ones. In one poignant passage, he talks about how empty a college classroom feels without students in it. Fussell also writes memorably of his experiences at the Imperial War Museum in London, where he did the research for The Great War, using materials that had hardly been touched since the war. The pages he devotes to the research are one of the best endorsements of the joys of the archives you’ll ever read.
The monastic stance Fussell took in graduate school stemmed in part from his puritanical upbringing. But it was a necessary part of the creative process. Fussell notes at one point how isolation was vital to his writing, as it is for any real thinker. Isolation clearly worked for Fussell, who is one of the rare writers who appeals to various disciplines in the humanities. He was a great historian, writer, and critic. It’s a cliché that academics don’t know how to write for a general audience. Fussell didn’t write “pop” books. But anyone with a junior high school education could enjoy Doing Battle.
Fussell was one of the talking heads on Ken Burns’s documentary about WWII, called simply The War. Fussell did not spout platitudes about the “Greatest Generation.” He will be missed.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.