During the Second World War, my mother worked for the Department of the Navy in Washington, D.C. When I was growing up, she would sometimes look back at those war years with a great degree of nostalgia. She would say that in spite of how terrible war could be, those years brought people together; there was a sense of shared purpose. Everyone knew what he was fighting for and everybody knew that he had to do his part.
The same sentiment was expressed by some after the First World War. What the world needed, it was said, was a moral equivalent to war. War may be destructive and cruel, but the citizens — both on the battlefield and at home — possessed a hierarchy of common values under which the public interest was placed ahead of the personal and private desires of separate individuals.
If only in peace, for constructive ends, people could agree on a similar hierarchy of shared goals and purposes for the common good! War reminded people that the group’s interests should take precedence and needed to take precedence over private wants.Paul Fussel’s the Great War and Modern Memory is a biased (pro-British) narrative that examines prominent wartime literature in attempt to understand how societies approach ‘remembering’ and coping with ugliness of war. The book revolves around the international calamity of World War I, with a special focus on British writers whom reacted to this conflict’s unprecedented nature. Fussel utilizes each of the nine chapters of his book in order to expose how this brand of literature appears to reflect the central themes of this particular war. Implying that no medium of human expression is immune to the disturbing effects of combat, this author also provides strong evidence supporting the transformation of language as well as writing style throughout this chaotic time period. Fussel deliberately centers each chapter around a general topic instead of an individual author, so there are definitely some reoccurring ideas throughout this lengthy analysis.
This format allows him to incorporate a better variety of authors that each contribute to his broad discussion in a unique way. He begins his text by introducing a Thomas Hardy poem and then disambiguating its dramatic uses of irony. After a discussion debating this piece’s meaning ensues, Fussel eloquently describes the central theme of his book. He asserts that irony is not only present in the context of WW1, but rather inherent in all acts of warfare. He claims that the underlying cause of most of this irony is that war is usually worse than it is expected to be because the actions of wars are almost always disproportionate to their repercussions. In this specific case, there were significant misconceptions held by the British upon entering the war. They hadn’t been engaged in a major war for almost a hundred years so they naively anticipated a few quick battles and a fairly straight-forward victory. Needless to say, they were horribly mistaken.
Over Eight and a half million men ended up losing their lives in this hideous event. Fussel articulates this concept very early in the book when he defines “irony as the attendant of hope, and innocence as its essential fuel. Therefore, it is not really surprising that WW1 was considered as the most ironic war ever (at the time) considering how innocent its beginnings were” (Chap. 1, p. 18). The author goes on to outline additional aspects of this war that contributed to the notorious satire of the time: including the soldiers’ close proximities to home, rank discrepancies, and mythical conceptions regarding their adversaries. He explains that while majority of soldiers in WW2 fought battles far from home, WW1 was the quite the opposite.
Most soldiers were stationed relatively close to their homes – perhaps a short train ride way. For them, the situation was especially difficult to grasp in the sense that they were suffering in trenches just miles away from the where they used to partake in ‘ordinary life.’ The explicit irony of this situation was that the troops were effectively exiled from the comfort and safety of their hometowns; fighting for their lives only miles from where they grew up. Many remained close enough for their magazine subscriptions to continue with a simple change of address. In fact, some stores even offered gift assortments that could be delivered to the front lines.
These poor soldiers were so close, yet so far… Within, but without. There was also a noteworthy dichotomy that existed between officers and soldiers during WW1. Soldiers positioned near the precarious front lines were ironically commanded by the officers being safeguarded in the rear. Fussel presents literary examples to further illustrate this situation.
Many of them are drawn from train stations of which emphasize the differences concerning the travel situations of respective infantry rankings. He describes how troops felt that officers were not aware of what what was actually occurring on the front lines, and thus, that there was a critical disconnect. Conversely, the higher-ups did not empathize with the lesser-ranked soldiers’ situations causing these subordinates to feel just as distant from the english people as they did from their own commanders. Consequently, some soldiers developed a deep hatred for fellow officers and civilians. Furthermore, Fussel sheds light upon the manner in which we tend to differentiate ourselves from our enemies; whom ironically, are not very different from us (if at all). He explains that “gross dichotomizing is a persisting imaginative habit of modern times, traceable, it would seem, to the actualities of WW1.” Common ideologies of this kind included some of the following self-righteous statements… ‘We are all here on this side; the enemy is over there. We are individuals with names and personal identities; he is a mere collective entity.
We are visible; he is invisible. We are normal; he is grotesque. Our appurtenances are natural his, bizarre. He is not as good as we are’ (Chap.
3, p. 75). In other words, Fussel explains how we typically never think of our war enemies in the same fashion that we view ourselves.
This sort of delusional behavior underscores the inevitable negative side-effects of living amidst the trenches. When such a brutal lifestyle is prolonged, this author contends that it has undeniable psychological and social implications. He elaborates upon this topic in his book by alluding to the concept of survivor bias: when survivors of the battle dictate the characterization of their enemy in the absence of any voices that were lost along the process. For example, the British they knew the Germans were near, but weeks would pass sometimes without seeing any of them at all.
This caused the (alive) soldiers to become polarized in their thinking; feeling as if the enemy was more passive or less violent than they really were. Hypothetically, if these men had been able to converse with their comrades who had recently been killed by the German troops, they would be much less likely to retain such ignorance – of which might lead them to their own graves. Fussel concludes his interpretation regarding our human tendency to creatively villainize our enemies by upholding how it is fundamentally a psychological defense mechanism that protects combatants from the truth that murder – whether at home or on the battlefield- is still unjustified and sinful.