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Recommendation: Paul Fussell (and Shakespeare) on Real War

KING HENRY V (unrecognised):
…methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king’s company; his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.


That’s more than we know.


Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough, if we know we are the king’s subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.


But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left.

Shakespeare – Henry V

Seeing Clearly

Paul Fussell writes compellingly about the reality of war and the terror and horror of combat in this excellent 1989 piece for The Atlantic. The public perception of war may be less Disneyfied in the post-Saving Private Ryan era, but not by much.

Here’s Fussell on the consequences of mixing high-explosive and humans:

What annoyed the troops and augmented their sardonic, contemptuous attitude toward those who viewed them from afar was in large part this public innocence about the bizarre damage suffered by the human body in modern war. The troops could not contemplate without anger the lack of public knowledge of the Graves Registration form used by the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, with its space for indicating “Members Missing.”

You would expect frontline soldiers to be struck and hurt by bullets and shell fragments, but such is the popular insulation from the facts that you would not expect them to be hurt, sometimes killed, by being struck by parts of their friends’ bodies violently detached. If you asked a wounded soldier or Marine what hit him, you’d hardly be ready for the answer “My buddy’s head,” or his sergeant’s heel or his hand, or a Japanese leg, complete with shoe and puttees, or the West Point ring on his captain’s severed hand.

Whose reality? The war of the 6%

Fussell convinces me that those who haven’t experienced combat can never understand it, but he casts doubt on his ‘real war’ thesis when he points out that even the majority of soldiers can’t understand: “by the end there were 11 million men in the American army, only 2 million were in the ninety combat divisions, and of those, fewer than 700,000 were in the infantry.”

I’m reminded of the words of a young man from Suffolk describing his feelings on the outbreak of the First World War:

[I gained weight when I joined the army] because it was the first time in my life there had been no strenuous work. I want to say this simply as a fact, that village people in Suffolk in my day were worked to death. It literally happened. It is not a figure of speech. I was worked mercilessly. I am not complaining about it. It is what happened to me… We were all delighted when war broke out.

Ronald Blythe – Akenfield

For the poor villagers in Akenfield war meant three square meals a day, foreign travel and a chance to do something other than pick potatoes from frozen ground without shoes or gloves, factors which (for some at least) compensated for relatively brief spells of terror of the trenches.

Both of these wars were real.

See also:
One Hundred Million Souls for the Emperor: Paul Fussell on Experience and Perspective

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