Paul Fussell, RIP

Paul Fussell, happy to have survived WWII

One of the best history books ever written, bar none, is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, a book that elegantly and seamlessly manages to be a comprehensive overview of WWI from the English point of view and of British literature during WWI.  My copy of the book, which I got during college, still occupies a prominent place on my bookshelf.  I’ve read it so often that the cheap paperback binding has disintegrated and, when I open the book, the drift gently down around my feet.  Anyone who is interested in England’s transition from pre-War romanticism to post-War cynicism, or interested in rock-solid history, or is interested in early 20th century British literature and poetry, or is simply interested in beautiful writing, should read this book.

Paul Fussell also wrote one of my favorite essays ever:  Thank God for the Atom Bomb. In that essay, Fussell, an infantryman in Europe the Pacific during WWII, makes a very simple argument: the atomic bomb was a good thing, in that it saved both Japanese and American lives.  Had the bomb not dropped, the war would have continued onto the Japanese mainland, with substantially greater American deaths (up to 100,000 more) as well as Japanese deaths equal to or greater than those resulting from the bomb.  This was a total war, one that the Japanese started.  It was not America’s responsibility to kill its own exhausted Marines in order to keep the Japanese alive, especially because the Japanese Bushido ethos demanded war without surrender.

Aside from embracing Fussell’s logic, I have always heartily and personally agreed with his sentiment.  When the bomb dropped, my mother, who had spent the previous 3.9 years in various Japanese concentration camps in Java, was 21, weighed 60 or so pounds, had the edema of profound starvation, was suffering from two different types of malaria (so she had constant fevers), had beriberi, and was no longer interested in eating.  Had the war lasted even a few more weeks, it’s doubtful she would have survived.  No Mom, of course, equals no me.  Thank God for the Atom Bomb!

Fussell, incidentally, wrote his atomic bomb essay while revisionist scholars were mounting their decades-long, atomic-sized attack on the bomb drop.  Their contention — and the story I learned in school — was that Fat Man and Little Boy had nothing to do with the War in the Pacific, and everything to do with Truman posturing before Stalin.  Recently released documents, however, show that Fussell was correct.  While impressing Stalin might have been a by-product of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Truman’s primary and reasonable goal was to speed up Japan’s inevitable defeat, while saving the lives of tens of thousands of Americans.  (For more on this, check out this Dennis Giangreco bibliography.)

As you’ve already figured out from the heading to this post, Paul Fussell has died, aged 88.  He was a true scholar who wrote brilliantly and who possessed a rare intellectual honesty and curmudgeonliness that overrode his generic East Coast, Ivy League liberalism.

(A random aside:  Fussell’s son, Samuel, is a pretty darn good writer too.  He wrote the delightful Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, which chronicled his journey from weedy Ivy League scholar, to polished, Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque body building.)

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  • lee

    People haven’t learned how truly awful (I can not think of an adjective severe enough) the conditions were for POW’s held by Japan during WWII. I saw an exhibit at the museum at Wright-Patterson about Allied POWs, and I was horrified. And this is someone who studied the Holocaust extensively as an undergrad. Japan’s prisoners received a significantly lower daily caloric intake (often by as much as half) as did those prisoners of the German’s in Auschwitz.
     BTW, apparently a film is being made about the construction of the Burma Railway (in which the Japanese used prisoners as slave laber; conditions were beyond terrible), starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman,

  • zabrina

    Thank you for bringing him and his works to my attention. I just bought “Thank God for the Atom Bomb” for my daughter, who evidently got the peacknik anti-American view in history class. I will let Mr. Fussell make the case that my parents taught me: that the atom bombs ended the war and saved thousands of American boys’ lives, allowing them to come home and live.

  • David Foster

    “The Great War and Modern Memory” concentrated on the British experience of WWI, but the social and psychological effects he described affected all the major belligerents (the US was much less affected than the European powers because of our later entry and lower casualties.

    In Erich Maria Remarque’s “The Road Back” (which is sort of a continuation of his much-better-known “All Quiet on the Western Front”), a group of returning German soldiers react strongly and negatively to high-flown oratory about the war from their old high school principal. One of them, Ludwig Breyer, stands up and tells the principal:

    “We do require that you shall not again try to prescribe what we shall think of these things…Have done with fine phrases”

    Very consistent with Fussell’s description of  the war’s impact on the relationship between generations and on allowable forms of rhetoric.

    My review of The Road Back is here

  • Ymarsakar

    The Left does not want thousands of Americans to come home. In fact, the Left prefers that Americans make themselves extinct. That way they can control the nation with their Mexican hired help, which they will control by threatening to deport them if they disobey the whims of the Leftist elite.

     The Left don’t even allow absentee ballots from military serviing overseas. And you think they want Americans to actually live long enough to return home? Remember the Bonus March under fascist/socialist Wilson. 

  • Ymarsakar

    This is the reality of the Left. Where Russian commissars used American lib prog recruits as cannon fodder in war. When they were no longer able to utilize Americans as cannon fodders for the Communist cause, they defaulted to other, high casualty prone, machinations.

    In a fashion, the LEft is neither anti war or pro war. It is pro Totalitarian, pro fascist, and pro communist utopia. Understand that, and you understand the rest.

    The bomb is bad because it stopped the Soviets from conquering Japan. End of story. Fascists are bad because Fascists broke the alliance with Stalin and attacked Mother Russia. There is nothing else to it. No complicated reason. No “humanitarian cause”. There is nothing there except the fact that human lives are nothing but cannon fodder for the Left to use on their journey to the dystopia of Total Control. 

  • JamesG

    Like Fussell and your mother and you I’m really glad we dropped the bombs. I was 16 on VJ day and if the war had continued would have been bugging my parents to let me enlist at age 17. Based on my knowledge of the war and my training at Benning infantry school I am not at all confident hat we would have conquered Japan without the bombs. The communist fifth column for one factor would no longer have a reason to support our war effort. One fact seldom mentioned: some members of the greatest generation rioted in European army camps after the Germans surrendered, demanding faster repatriation. No doubt American communists had something to do with the riots as well as with public clamors for faster return of our troops from Europe. Minor nitpick: Fussell fought in Europe, not in the Pacific. Without the bombs he, no doubt, would have been transferred to the Japan theater. 

  • Owen Glendower

    ” Minor nitpick: Fussell fought in Europe, not in the Pacific. Without the bombs he, no doubt, would have been transferred to the Japan theater.”
    If I recall, Fussell at the time Japan surrendered was part of a force which was being assembled for the invasion of the home islands.  When word came that Japan had surrendered, he said that he and the other battle-hardened veterans in that force simply sat down and cried.  None of them had harbored any hope of surviving the invasion.
    Everyone–especially students and other young people–should read “Thank God for the Atom Bomb.”  Fussell repeatedly points out that the historians and social critics who blithely state that the second atom bomb (and perhaps the first one) were “of course” not necessary all have one thing in common: they never served in combat.
    I distinctly remember an interview in which Truman stated that he had never had a second thought nor lost a minute’s sleep over his decision to drop the bomb.