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Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War [Paperback]

by Paul Fussell
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 25, 1990 9780195065770 978-0195065770 New edition
Winner of both the National Book Award for Arts and Letters and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory was one of the most original and gripping volumes ever written about the First World War. Frank Kermode, in The New York Times Book Review, hailed it as "an important contribution to our understanding of how we came to make World War I part of our minds," and Lionel Trilling called it simply "one of the most deeply moving books I have read in a long time." In its panaramic scope and poetic intensity, it illuminated a war that changed a generation and revolutionized the way we see the world.

Now, in Wartime, Fussell turns to the Second World War, the conflict he himself fought in, to weave a narrative that is both more intensely personal and more wide-ranging. Whereas his former book focused primarily on literary figures, on the image of the Great War in literature, here Fussell examines the immediate impact of the war on common soldiers and civilians. He describes the psychological and emotional atmosphere of World War II. He analyzes the euphemisms people needed to deal with unacceptable reality (the early belief, for instance, that the war could be won by "precision bombing," that is, by long distance); he describes the abnormally intense frustration of desire and some of the means by which desire was satisfied; and, most important, he emphasizes the damage the war did to intellect, discrimination, honesty, individuality, complexity, ambiguity and wit. Of course, no Fussell book would be complete without some serious discussion of the literature of the time. He examines, for instance, how the great privations of wartime (when oranges would be raffled off as valued prizes) resulted in roccoco prose styles that dwelt longingly on lavish dinners, and how the "high-mindedness" of the era and the almost pathological need to "accentuate the positive" led to the downfall of the acerbic H.L. Mencken and the ascent of E.B. White. He also offers astute commentary on Edmund Wilson's argument with Archibald MacLeish, Cyril Connolly's Horizon magazine, the war poetry of Randall Jarrell and Louis Simpson, and many other aspects of the wartime literary world.

Fussell conveys the essence of that wartime as no other writer before him. For the past fifty years, the Allied War has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by "the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty." Americans, he says, have never understood what the Second World War was really like. In this stunning volume, he offers such an understanding.

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Paul Fussell, a distinguished literary historian, served as an infantry officer during World War II, and the experience has haunted him ever since. It has also informed his books, among them The Great War in Modern Memory and Wartime, a book that is part memoir, part cultural-critical study, and that is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of conflict. Fussell conjures the small details of battlefield experience -- the way a bird's song falls silent just before an artillery barrage, the curious plunking sound a spinning bullet makes, the drift of smoke over an obliterated village; he also evokes the Zeitgeist of the war years, an era when hometown grocery stores bore signs like this one: "Did you drown a sailor today because YOU bought a lamb chop without giving up the required coupons?"

From Publishers Weekly

Most of the men who fought World War II were young--with those over 27 or 28 likely to be called "Dad." For most of the troops, the war's purpose seemed remote and vague, according to Fussell. He contends that many Americans had little comprehension of Nazism; to "our boys" the war was about revenge against the Japanese. In this sequel to The Great War and Modern Memory , Fussell presents American and British soldiers as alcoholically insulated against reality, suffering boredom, absurdity, sexual deprivation and, above all, full of subversive contempt stoked by the official mix of optimism and euphemism that falsified the war experience. Separate chapters cover wartime rumors and blunders, service slang, the despair in the trenches, and the sanitized, sanguine messages emanating from radios, films, songs and high-minded literature back home. This brilliant, engaging cultural history quietly subverts our whitewashed collective memory of the war. Illustrations. First serial to the Atlantic.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 330 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; New edition edition (October 25, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780195065770
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195065770
  • ASIN: 0195065778
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.3 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #266,447 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
78 of 82 people found the following review helpful
World War II was defended, at the time, as a high minded war. In recent years, historians have viewed the war in a monolithic way -- the Good War, the Crusade, the most legitimate use of American power...
Fussell corrects this view by adding nuance, by capturing the background. His essays on the culture of wartime range from music to literature, radio to army camp life, scatological humor to the horrors of battle. The result is a rare and unusual history, which captures some of the variability of this large war.
The book reads well. Most chapters can be read as stand alone essays, but read as a whole the book builds a layered depiction of the back lines, the home front, and the fighting man.
The last chapter horrifies and moves the reader. Fussell has a goal of helping to bring Americans to a greater maturity about behavior during war, and the costs of battle. It is clear that America is immature about battle and death -- witness the end of the Gulf War -- and that this has a cost in how we pursue foreign policy.
Great book, great read, excellent corrective to the outsized heroic histories of the war.
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73 of 78 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars War and the GI December 18, 1999
Contrary to some of the recent reviews, I consider Fussell's work the best I have read on WWII. I've read some of Stephen Amborse's works and enjoyed them as well, but Fussell provides a much needed critical, even cynical, antidote to Ambrose's telling of the story. Fussell definitely departs from the mainstream representation the war and that is immensely refreshing.
Fussell provides detailed insight into the daily lives of the average soldier, the mundane and the horrific. He tells of many errors (in fact in his view the whole war should be viewed as a series of errors) such as shooting down friendly planes and bombimg of friendly troops. Fussell discloses the tremendous amount of drinking that went on, the physical deprivations, and the cruelty of inept martinets that were officers. To me, the war was a just one, but that's no reason to remain ignorant of just how horrible the war was.
This book is not a telling of whole story of WWII and isn't meant to be, but it's an absolutely necessary complement to the standard histories.
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45 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I could carve a better man out of a banana!" August 26, 1999
By A Customer
I want to disagree with the three previous reviews, to defend Fussell's project. One reviewer seems to be confusing "Wartime" with Fussell's memoir "Doing Battle." The former is not intended as a memoir but as an alternate history--an alternative to the kind of history represented by a book recommended by another of the reviewers, i.e.,, Stephen Ambrose's "Citizen Soldiers." If Ambrose's book can be seen as a companion to Spielberg's romantic (and therefore disappointing) "Saving Private Ryan," then "Wartime" is parallel to--in fact is clearly inspired by--Heller's satirical "Catch-22." What Fussell and Heller have in common is that they both reject absolutely the work of the apologists of war--a category into which all three of these reviewers probably fit. What the reviewer who labels Fussell's book "unadulterated junk" seems to object to most is that Fussell, by training a literary critic, should have the presumption to write HISTORY. The reviewer suggests that, instead of reading Fussell, one should read anti-war novels, including Heller's "Catch-22." Here's what Heller had to say about Fussell's book: "No novel I have read surpasses its depiction of the awful human costs to all sides of modern warfare. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say it is unforgettable" (jacket blurb). What these reviewers find unFORGIVEable is that Mr. Fussell has, in writing this book, stepped outside the established conventions of historiography--that is why a book that to Heller and to me (another of those blasted literary types--YUCK!) is eminently readable appears to them "confused." They haven't yet learned how to read the sort of history Fussell is writing. Read more ›
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's not Shirer, but that's not the point. February 19, 2003
Readers of this book tend to either love it or hate it. I think this is an enourmously valuable book when taken for what's intended to convey. This book describes the cultural gestalt of the American people during the second world war and the experience of the common soldier. When held to the standard of historical research of the sort William L. Shirer produced in his history of the Third Reich, it natuarally falls short. (Althought I strongly disagree with the critique of Fussells scholarship offered in other reviews.) The book is not a strict history, but a social commentary and a view from a a man who fought in the war.
Dr. Fussell served during WWII and is personally closer to the material than his award winning work in "The Great War and Modern Memory." What is lost in his capacity for objectivity is more than compensated for in his empathy, his insight and his common touch with the experience of the young men who fought in the war. Who could blame a man who fought in a war for being critical of aspects of it? Why should we expect him to extole its virtues?
Is it really such heresy to state that people had doubts about fighting the second world war? Does it really show disrespect to acknowledge that the generation who fought the second world war thought about what the war meant? If anything, bringing this to light shows that people back then weren't too different from ourselves. It shows that as a society we have known the same anxieties and resevations about war that we do today and survived.
We are rapidly loosing the generation of men who fought WWII, and with them an important group of people who participated in the shaping of the modern world. This book communicates one mans educated and eloquently stated perspective on the defining conflict of the last hundred years. We could use more books like this, and I'm grateful that we have this one.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Witty Analysis
Witty analysis of the Second World War. Takes a good look at the blunders and pre-conceived ideas about the participants.
Published 1 month ago by a
5.0 out of 5 stars Paul Fussell was there
Paul Fussell was there. At 20, he was a machine gunner and then a lieutenant from Normandy until the Rhine. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Terry Irving
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly informative study of the subject
This is a well researched and documented study on social and cultural issues around WWII. Most of it relates to the US and UK, and perhaps I would have liked a more in-depth look... Read more
Published 7 months ago by A.B.C.
5.0 out of 5 stars A Rosetta Stone of unique insight into a catastrophe that forever...
A Combat Infantry man -- good at that work: An intellectual; An academic; A Man of Letters; A compulsive truth teller and myth-breaker. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Robert Haydon Jones
4.0 out of 5 stars Shatters the mythology of "the good war"
Paul Fussell was well known as a war veteran who argued that war is only possible if we deliberately ignore its horror and stupidity. Read more
Published 13 months ago by C. Macauley
5.0 out of 5 stars Very enlightening
I purchased the Kindle addition. There were a few grammatical errors but the errors didn't interfer with the reading. I enjoyed this book. Read more
Published 15 months ago by LBC
4.0 out of 5 stars Gigantic screwup?
When I first read this years ago, I was disappointed in Fussell's apparent "dim view". I'm inclined now to agree more with his impressions of the war I fought in, although... Read more
Published 17 months ago by flakhappy
4.0 out of 5 stars Rough, Disturbing, Realistic
This hard-boiled, depressing book shows the realities of combat from World War II. In a series of chapters and essays, Author Paul Fussell minces few words and images. Read more
Published on January 8, 2011 by K.A.Goldberg
2.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly essays more than memoir
I enjoyed listening to Mr. Fussell's commentary in Ken Burn's "The War" documentary and thought I might benefit from reading this book. Read more
Published on May 19, 2010 by JES
5.0 out of 5 stars Fussell seeks to "balance the scales."
I first learned of Paul Fussell when I read his book entitled "Class: A Guide through the American Status System. Read more
Published on May 15, 2009 by William S. Grass
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