Memorial Day, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory

Paul Fussell's book is sobering reading as we honor our veterans on Memorial Day.

Today’s Memorial Day, and, in addition to being a day when people across the country mark the unofficial beginning of summer by throwing steaks, burgers, dogs or fish on the grill, it is a time to honor veterans’ service.

I read yesterday in Parade magazine about Frank Buckles, America’s last remaining World War I veteran, or doughboy, and his campaign to establish a National World War I memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC.

American soldiers like Buckles entered the “War to End All Wars” relatively late in the game, in 1917, after then-President Woodrow Wilson had successfully campaigned for re-election in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.”

For millions of others, though, their fighting had already ended with their death.

The years of trench warfare and the development of the machine gun had led to hundreds of thousands of young men being slaughtered in “no man’s land” over what ultimately turned out to be hundreds, and at times dozens, of yards, in battles at the Somme and Verdun, among others.

These deaths were accompanied by nearly as high numbers of men dying in the trenches due to the diseases that ran rampant throughout them.

Such staggering rates of mortality lofty visions of a short, bloodless and seemingly noble campaign-there were predictions of the war ending by December 1914-understandably led to a changed vision of the war.

In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell documents those changes through an analysis of the work of many of the leading war poets.

Fussell convincingly traces the rise of irony, the diminished faith in governments, leaders and mission that emerged after the war’s bloody end at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, more than four years and millions of dead man after it began.

In an early stage of the book, he writes about how the more flowery and elevated language of the early war period-men’s blood was called “the sweet wine of youth,” for instance-was replaced by a darker, more ominous and brooding sensibility.

Fussell also writes about famous poets from the era like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, one of my personal favorites.  When our family lived in England while I was in eighth grade, everyone in our class had to compete in a speech contest in which we recited a poem we had memorized.

Our class, with Pete Noll, had to learn Owen’s classic description of a gas attack, “Dulce et decorum est.”

Haunted by the image of a fellow soldier in the grips of a deadly gas attack, Owen ends the poem with the following stanza:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Fussell explores these and many other poems in his memorable and thought-provoking work.  On the day we stop to honor the service of all our veterans, we also do well to reflect on war’s inevitable consequences and the high pace enlisted men pay for generals’ desire for glory.


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