06 agosto 2004

On November 11 1944, Paul Fussell woke up surrounded by corpses. Drafted into the American infantry 18 months before, he had been in France just a few weeks and this was his first night in the line. "Until that moment," he writes in his memoir Doing Battle (1996), "the only dead people I'd seen had been Mother's parents." But now, in the forest where he had been ordered to rest after a botched attack, there were "dozens of German boys in greenish grey uniforms, killed a day or two before by the company we were replacing. If darkness had mercifully hidden them from us, dawn disclosed them with staring open eyes and greenish white faces."

The horrors inflicted by and on ground troops, Fussell believes, are almost never acknowledged. "American readers needed someone to tell them what war was really like," he says, "because by the 1970s the romanticising of the second world war had already begun. And so I tried to cut away parts of it - tell them what a trench smelt like and what dead GIs smelt like and so forth."

For his friend Edmund Keeley, a retired Princeton English professor, Fussell's classic literary study, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), is without question his most important work. In it, he set out his stall, emphasising tactical errors and blunders, drawing the reader's attention to the hordes of terrified, disgusted deserters. He described the everyday texture of life at the front, from freezing cold, rats, lice and terrible food, to horrific mutilations and murders. But what distinguished the book from other critical accounts of the world wars, or of Vietnam, was its literary emphasis. "I think he was the first to see the connection between those various wars and the way they were described and who was doing the describing," says Keeley. "Style, how you use words, how you use rhetoric, can end up being a kind of symbol of how a whole generation is thinking."

Fussell showed that the British were masters of a euphemistic diction whereby, in wartime, friends became "comrades", danger was "peril", to die was "to perish" and the dead were "the fallen" or "the dust". He suggested that to call the killing fields of the Somme a "battle" was "to suggest that these events parallel Blenheim and Waterloo not only in glory but in structure and meaning". In the work of the soldier-poets and memoirists who were the focus of his research, Fussell discovered a series of ironic contrasts. Poppies and roses, symbols of blood and passion spent, were reminders too of a pre-war pastoral idyll. Sunrises and sunsets, moments of ritualised terror in the trenches as soldiers were required to "stand-to", became, in the poems, ripe with moral and religious suggestion.

[The Guardian has the whole lot]

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