The Great War And Modern Memory By Paul Fussell

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“Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected,” Paul Fussell wrote in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” his classic study of the English literature of the First World War. “But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since.” The ancient verities of honor and glory were still standing in 1914 when England’s soldier-poets marched off to fight in France. Those young men became modern through the experience of trench warfare, if not in the forms they used to describe it. It was Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Lawrence who invented literary modernism while sitting out the war. Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen—who all fought in the trenches and, in the last two cases, died …show more content…

Fussell cited a newspaper story about a London man who killed himself out of concern that he might not be accepted for service in the Great War, and noted, “How can we forbear condescending to the eager lines at the recruiting stations or smiling at news like this.” But in the summer of 1968 Tim O’Brien, a twenty-one-year-old in a small Minnesota town, a liberal supporter of Eugene McCarthy and an opponent of the war in Vietnam, submitted himself for induction into the United States Army. O’Brien couldn’t bring himself “to upset a peculiar balance between the order I knew, the people I knew, and my own private world,” he wrote, in “If I Die in a Combat Zone,” his 1973 Vietnam memoir. “It was not just that I valued that order. I also feared its opposite—inevitable chaos, censure, embarrassment, the end of everything that had happened in my life, the end of it all.” Was O’Brien’s fear of dishonor entirely different from the impulse that drove a forty-nine-year-old man to throw himself under a van in …show more content…

That’s one of them. War is hell is another. War begins in illusion and ends in blood and tears. Soldiers go to war for their country’s cause and wind up fighting for one another. Soldiers are dreamers (Sassoon said that). No one returns from war the same person who went. War opens an unbridgeable gap between soldiers and civilians. There’s no truth in war—just each soldier’s experience. “You can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (from “How to Tell a True War Story,” in O’Brien’s story collection “The Things They Carried”).

Irony in modern American war literature takes many forms, and all risk the overfamiliarity that transforms style into cliché. They begin with Hemingway’s rejection, in “A Farewell to Arms,” of the high, old language, his insistence on concreteness: “I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had

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