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Out of the Trenches

The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell, Jr. Oxford University Press; $13.95; 363 pp.

By Gregory F. Lawless

EVERY DAY our lives are infected with war in one or another of its many manifestations. If you read the papers, your life--or the way you perceive it--can't help but be influenced by war. Take yesterday's New York Times, for example. One article said that a veteran of Vietnam, Rhodesia, Iraq and Biafra is recruiting 1,000 mercenaries in Britain to fight for the National Front for the Liberation of Angola. In a special dispatch, the "battle lines between Christians and Moslems" in Beirut were described as "quiescent." There was also a report that evidence exists for Nixon's pledge of $3.25 billion in post-war reparations to North Vietnam. Another story described 120 Vietnamese children, crippled and mained for life, who are living in the West German Oberhausen Peace Village, the subjects of a dispute between those who would like to see them repatriated and those who wouldn't.

Paul Fussel's The Great War starts with the same inevitable conclusions derived from yesterday's war and post-war dispatches: war is always with us, it leaves an indelible impression on our memories, shaping and illuminating our lives and our culture. But Fussell only begins with the kind of half-shaped ideas we get from these recent dispatches. His book deals with World War I and its accretions in the collective memory of the English-speaking world over the past half century. His "memory" is not, say, our individual memories of Vietnam, but a more permanent kind of remembrance: "the literary means by which [WWI] has been remembered, conventionalized and mythologized."

THE GREAT WAR centers around the experience of British soldiers on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918 as it was set down in print by those who witnessed, endured, and died in the first mechanized war the world saw. It presents not only a compelling account of the First World War, but a scholarly mine of insights into the way the war shaped literary and cultural traditions ever since England declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914.

When you think of the literary scene in England at the outbreak of the war, you might not immediately grasp the fact that the Modernists (the writers we read today) weren't directly concerned with the war or with the mainstream of literature. Fussell puts us into the proper perspective with a curious list of (slightly exaggerated) negations:

There was no "Waste Land,"...There was no "Ulysses," no "Mauberly," no "Cantos," no Kafka, no Proust, no Waugh, no Auden, no Huxley, no Cummings, no "Women in Love" or "Lady Chatterly's Lover." There was no Valley of Ashes in "The Great Gatsby." One read Hardy and Kipling and Conrad and frequented worlds of traditional moral action delineated in traditional moral language.

Those who read Conrad and Kipling found the war wholly inexplicable. For Henry James, the day after England entered the war, any notion of the world "gradually bettering" seemed lost: "to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really [leading up to] and meaning is too tragic for anywords." Yet for those who saw the trenches extending 2200 miles from the coast in Belgium to Switzerland, for those who saw 60,000 British casualties at Ypres in April, 1915, and another 60,000 British casualties at Loos five months later, and then 60,000 killed and wounded on a single day at the attack on the Somme in June, 1916, for these men words somehow had to explain things.

THE BRITISH went into the war hoping for a quick little engagement with the "Germ-huns," and the devastation of modern warfare--mustard gas, tanks, artillery, and machine guns--came as a horrific surprise. Fussell's theory is that the "dynamics of hope abridged" haunted the minds of those who lived in the rat-infested trenches behind the corpse-strewn No Man's Land, and that the ways they perceived scenes like that first day on the Somme "stand as a virtual allegory of the political and social cognition of our time." The unifying force in all of modern literature, according to Fussell, the "one dominating form of modern understanding...is essentially ironic...and it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War."

From this general framework--we'll call it the Great War Syndrome--Fussell proceeds to explore some of its various manifestations, and the writers who were closest to its center. Writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, he suggests, employed traditional literary terms to evoke the "actualities" of war. Sunsets and sunrises, rising out of the Pastoral, take on a new and heightened significance in the trenches when used to describe the stand-to--a rite in which everybody on the front line took up arms and stood ready for the attacks that came at dawn or dusk.

Edmund Blunden, a poet, elaborates a Syndrome theme when he recalls the endlessness of war in that attack on the Somme. "By the end of the day," he writes, "both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. No road. No thoroughfare. Neither race had won, nor could win, the War. The war had won, and would go on winning." And after carefully building up evidence for the recurrence of this theme since that time, Fussell quotes this headline from The New York Times: "U.S. Aides in Vietnam/See an Unending War."

The Syndrome, Fussell says, has led to "gross dichotomizing...a persisting imaginative habit of modern times, traceable, it would seem, to the actualities of the Great War." He believes the war led to the habit of simple distinction, simplification and opposition. Here he expands his argument to include "paranoid melodrama," the rumor-mongering, and the civilian/soldier dichotomy associated with the war. This latter argument is particularly convincing, since it shows how press censorship and government propaganda suppressing the grim horrors of war alienated the soldier from civilians.

One of the more enlightening--and more believable--sections of The Great War is one describing how the war changed or added to language and its usage. He shows how it strengthened British stoicism in literary style, something Fussell calls "Phlegm," as in this letter home: "Move to trenches Hebuterne. Strafing and a certain dampness." He also presents us with the origins of the widespread use of form letters. British soldiers who tired of writing banal letters home--the only kind that could get by the censors--could write out a "Form A. 2042," also known as the "Whizz Bang" or "Quick Firer." The entire letter was couched in euphemistic phrases, and contained no way of saying one was going to the front. One could only cross out phrases, nothing could be added. A soldier in the hospital had the choice of crossing out "sick/wounded" and "am going on well/hope to be discharged soon." The recipient was protected from war realities, experience was reduced to a choice of doublethink phrases. Forms, of course, stuck with us.

FUSSELL'S BOOK--and I've only giving you a pale chill compared to the frisson you get reading it--leaves you with a sense of an entire social construct arising out of the Great War. He carefully analyzes the major war-related works of Sassoon, Owen, Robert Graves, David Jones, and Edmund Blunden, to show how they created the new ironic form of cognition World War I bestowed upon our culture.

There are problems with The Great War, however. First is Fussell's overriding assumption that the current idea of the Great War--of miserable trench warfare in Northern France and Belgium--must set the parameters for the work. This is almost tautological, because Fussell is trying to prove that this current idea emerged out of the war. Fussell also tends to concentrate on how the officers, the gentlemen warriors of WWI, saw things. He does refer to "what the ordinary man has to say about it all," but this is submerged beneath his emphasis on the literary effete of the war.

This may not be so much Fussell's fault as the social conditions of the times, the strict division between the officers and the Other Ranks, (who did all the fighting), and the officers' godlike clutch on "culture." A colonel, for instance, read a review of Edmund Blunden's poetry in the Times Literary Supplement, and he called Blunden back from the trenches to do light duty at batallion headquarters. But sometimes Fussell gets caught up in that class-determined culture, as when he describes Blunden's "very worst moment" (Fussell's words), an explosion that happened close by but that Blunden only heard about. Blunden's gardner-servant told him, "Don't go over, sir, it's awful." Why don't we hear more of what the valet or others like him had to say and write about the war?

In the dead center of his book, Fussell considers the phenomenon that bears on this question and his literary approach, what he calls the problem of "the collision between events and the language available." And his own answer seems less than adequate. "There's no reason why a language devised by man should be inadequate to describe any of man's works. The difficulty was in admitting that the war had been made by men and was being continued ad infinitum by them." Fussell rejects Louis Simpson's theory that infantry soldiers so seldom render their experiences in language because "language seems to falsify physical life and to betray those who have experienced it absolutely--the dead." Fussell reduces the whole problem to this: it's not that war is indescribable, but that it's "nasty," and this contradicted the sensibilities of the times. The war's nastiness, certainly contradicted the sensibilities of the high culture Fussell embraces. His favorite poem, for instance is, Isaac Rosenberg's "Break of Day in the Trenches," because of its pastoral resonances. And in his clever pastiche on "The characteristic pastoral homoerotic tenderness of Great War British male love," centering around public school graduates, he ignores the relationship between men in the Other Ranks, and their heterosexual practices.

Fussell's class bias is the only flaw in his otherwise brilliant analysis. And whether or not you believe that World War I has a unique and monolithic legacy for our way of seeing things, it has certainly reinforced certain modes of perception. War is one of the few experiences that whole cultures can share. In the past ten years, we all shared Vietnam by watching it on television. We saw it in a heap of bodies at Mylai, in the naked girl running down a road crying as napalm burned through her skin. But, as Fussell says, our culture began to learn how to accept this long ago through a perception that is ironic, accepting an experience that will never conform to our moral values. And we began to learn this ironic form of understanding during World War One.

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