May 31, 2012

Doing Battle

Filed under: books — theresaurus @ 11:44 am

From Paul Fussell’s Doing Battle, The Making of a Skeptic:

“The wartime idolizing of the common man was beginning to grate on me, and I welcomed Mencken’s comment on George Washington: ‘He had no belief in the infallible wisdom of the common people, but regarded them as inflammatory dolts, and tried to save the Republic from them.’ … Mencken alerted me to the applling ugliness of the America that men had built, the positive ‘Libido for the Ugly’ presiding here, the love  of the unbeautiful apparently for its own sake. For twenty-five miles out of Pittsburgh, Mencken notes, the traveler by train is confronted only by sights that ‘insult and lacerate the eye.’ Conclusion: ‘Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty as it hates truth.’

“‘The most extreme experience a human being can go through,’ says historian Stephen Ambrose, ‘is being a combat infantryman.’ Part of that experience involves, of course, intense fear, long continued. But another part requires a severe closing-off of normal human sympathy so that you can look dry-eyed and undisturbed at the most appalling things. … I was beginning to understand what a marine sergeant told Philip Caputo during the Vietnam War: ‘Before you leave here, Sir, you’re going to learn that one of the most brutal things in the world is your average nineteen-year-old American boy.’

“Experience brought me to the clear-eyed view of military historian Russell Weigley: ‘The American army of World War II habitually filled the ranks of its combat infantry with its least promising recruits, the uneducated, the unskilled, the unenthusiastic.’ … I have speculated since why no one at the time seemd to care terribly. Perhaps the reason is that the bulk of those killed by bullets and shells were the ones normally killed in peacetime in mine disasters, industrial and construction accidents, lumbering, and fire and police work. No one we knew, certainly. Wasn’t the ground war, for the United States, an unintended form of eugenics, clearing the population of the dumbest, the least skilled, the least promising of all young American males?

“I was angry at the whole postwar atmosphere of public misrepresentation and fatuous optimism, the widespread feeling that the war had produced good for the United States, with good defined as people’s ability to buy new cars and refrigerators. So what if 85 million people had been killed, most of them civilians? Here, no one had been bombed, eviscerated, burned to death, raped, and torn apart. Here, the war was now largely represented almost as a source of fun, for which act national euphemism became necessary: the War Department was euphemized into the Department of Defense, the armaments and war budget became the defense budget, and soon air strikes — later, surgical air strikes — would replace the bombing of women and children. Public rhetoric was growing indistinguishable from commercial advertising, and I came to regard both as the cynical manipulation of the weak of mind by the cunning and the avaricious. Increasingly the country seemed managed not by an elected government but by the National Association of Manufacturers, abetted by the Central Intelligence Agency, forcing anyone of energetic conscience to embrace the role of enemy.”


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