Choices among crazinesses
Both Austin Bay and Clive Davis recently cited
this famous essay by literary critic Paul Fussell in their posts on the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb.
I had read Fussell's 1988 essay, provocatively titled "God Bless the Atomic Bomb," years ago. But this recommendation by two bloggers I admire and respect made me go back and read it again. And, as with so many things I've read post-9/11, I find it seems to have more depth and relevance than ever.
Fussell is a WWII combat veteran himself, which gives his work a perspective not often found among literary critics, especially literary critics today. Or course, in WWII, even literary critics (or literary critics-to-be) were not immune from serving. Read the whole thing--it's not only thoughtful, but extremely well-written. Fussell is not one to pull his punches.
I'm not familiar with most of Fussell's work, but I did read his masterpiece The Great War and Modern Memory when it first came out in the mid-70s. It's about World War I as seen through the prism of the literature of the times. Apparently, even long before I became a neocon, I must have been interested in the topic of war--particularly World War I, the neglected war as far as my history courses were concerned.
We had always spent a great deal of study on the early history of the US up to the Civil War, and then somehow ran out of time when we got to the twentieth century. So WWI was reduced to a couple of battles and then the Armistice, and memorizing "In Flanders Fields." I had no real indication of the extent of the destruction wrought during that war, not only to human life, but to the way of life and thinking that preceded the war. Many, in fact, judge that the modern era really dates from that war.
I came to this interest in WWI obliquely, through the mechanism of literature. Somewhere along the way I had encountered a quote from author Henry James that grabbed my attention and seemed to contain a mystery (I no longer have the quote, unfortunately). It was, as best I can recall, from his diary, and it expressed the idea that WWI had caused him to totally revise his notion of what the previous decades had actually been about. The idea of history as a progression forward and upwards, of things leading slowly but inexorably to a better and more civilized world, was one he had apparently held until the utter shock of WWI changed everything for him and plunged him into despair.
James took ill not long after the war began, and he died in 1916, before the war was concluded. Post-WWI, though, it seems that James had suffered a profound disillusionment and reorganization of his worldview not unlike that which began with the events of 9/11 for many of us today.
James's reaction was shared by many people who witnessed WWI, one of the main themes of Fussell's excellent book. It was the James quote that had introduced me to that phenomenon, and Fussell's book was my first exposure to the watershed nature of WWI. Through the device of looking at the literature of the years immediately preceding the War and comparing it to that during the war (particularly the marvelous poetry--by which I don't mean the ubiquitous "In Flanders Fields"), Fussell draws a picture of how--especially for the generation coming of age at that time--"everything changed" during that war.
One of the writers Fussell features is Wilfred Owen, a brilliant young poet who was an officer in WWI and was killed, ironically, just a week before the Armistice. If you're not familiar with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, nearly all of it set in WWI, please take a look. He focuses on the pain and horror of the human suffering of war, much as John Hershey did in Hiroshima, without going into the context of that suffering. So, Owen doesn't discuss politics at all--the "brutal calculus" of war is not his topic. The human costs are, and he is one who knows them all too well, and paid them himself in full measure.
Here is an especially telling excerpt from Fussell's atom bomb essay, about the brutal calculus of WWII as opposed to WWI, and particularly the decision to drop the bomb. But it applies to all decisions in all wars:
Lord Louis Mountbatten, trying to say something sensible about the dropping of the A-bomb, came up only with "War is crazy." Or rather, it requires choices among crazinesses. "It would seem even more crazy," he went on, "if we were to have more casualties on our side to save the Japanese..."
"Choices among crazinesses"--exactly. And not all crazinesses are equal. Some, although awful and crazy, are better than others, more awful and more crazy still.
The final words of Fussell's fine essay are particularly memorable. They are a general guide to judging history itself, and those who make the weighty and difficult decisions that help determine its course:
The past, which as always did not know the future, acted in ways that ask to be imagined before they are condemned. Or even simplified."