Paul Fussell was a great writer and scholar and, in the three years before his death yesterday, an Oregonian.
Obituaries are beginning to appear around the world, but the best honor one could pay to the man is to read his writing. Fussell stripped war of heroism and romance. His voice was steady, clear and honest and on basically every subject, worth hearing.
In the excerpt below, from a 1982 essay on his experiences during the American invasion of Vichy France in World War II, Fussell explains how he came to his subject:
Everyone knows that a night relief is among the most difficult of infantry maneuvers. But we didn’t know it, and in our innocence we expected it to go according to plan. We and the company we were replacing were cleverly and severely shelled; it was as if the Germans a few hundred feet away could see us in the dark and through the thick pine growth. When the shelling finally stopped, at about midnight, we realized that although near the place we were supposed to be, until daylight we were hopelessly lost.His books are highly recommended.
The order came down to stop where we were, lie down among the trees, and get some sleep. We would finish the relief at first light. Scattered over several hundred yards, the 250 of us in F Company lay down in a darkness so thick we could see nothing at all. Despite the terror of our first shelling (and several people had been hit), we slept as soundly as babes.
At dawn I awoke, and what I saw all around were numerous objects I’d miraculously not tripped over in the dark. These objects were dozens of dead German boys in greenish-gray uniforms, killed a day or two before by the company we were relieving. If darkness had hidden them from us, dawn disclosed them with open eyes and greenish-white faces like marble, still clutching their rifles and machine pistols in their seventeen-year-old hands, fixed where they had fallen. (For the first time I understood the German phrase for the war dead: die Gefallenen.)
Michelangelo could have made something beautiful out of these forms, in the Dying Gaul tradition, and I was startled to find that at first, in a way I couldn’t understand, they struck me as beautiful. But after a moment no feeling but shock and horror.
My adolescent illusions, largely intact to that moment, fell away all at once, and I suddenly knew I was not and never would be in a world that was reasonable or just. The scene was less apocalyptic than shabbily ironic: it sorted so ill with modern popular assumptions about the idea of progress and attendant improvements in public health, social welfare, and social justice.
To transform guiltless boys into cold marble after passing them through unbearable fear and humiliation and pain and contempt seemed to do them an interesting injustice.
I decided to ponder these things.