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Posts Tagged ‘My war: how I got irony in the war’

Over the weekend, I barbecued–somewhat perilously–from inside my garage on a rainy afternoon in Central Florida. I spent the day eating FFA pork with a few close friends and, for the most part, avoiding the topic of war. With the weekend over, I started catching up on blogs to find that Paul Fussell had passed away. Since I first read The Great War and Modern Memory, Fussell has been a hero of mine–someone whose keen eye for literature and history has given us all a better understanding of culture made in war. One of the most compelling arguements in The Great War and Modern Memory is that the First World War gave rise–if not birth–to irony in mainstream Western culture. One can see that, at the very least, Fussell earned his irony in war after reading “My war: how I got irony in the war” (HT Small Wars Journal). He begins telling the story of how a boy, “fat and flabby, with feminine tits and a big behind,” chose ROTC and eventually the infantry as a means to avoid undressing in gym. However, now he lays bare everything:

That month away from the line helped me survive for four weeks more but it broke the rhythm and, never badly scared before, when I returned to the line early in March I found for the first time that I was terrified, unwilling to take the chances that before had seemed rather sporting. My month of safety had renewed my interest in survival, and I was psychologically and morally ill prepared to lead my platoon in the great Seventh Army attack of March 15, 1945. But lead it I did, or rather push it, staying as far in the rear as was barely decent. And before the day was over I had been severely rebuked by a sharp-eyed lieutenant-colonel who threatened court martial if I didn’t pull myself together. Before that day was over I was sprayed with the contents of a soldier’s torso when I was lying behind him and he knelt to fire at a machine gun holding us up: he was struck in the heart, and out of the holes in the back of his field jacket flew little clouds of tissue, blood, and powdered cloth. Near him another man raised himself to fire, but the machine gun caught him in the mouth, and as he fell he looked back at me with surprise, blood and teeth dribbling out onto the leaves. He was one to whom early on I had given the Silver Star for heroism, and he didn’t want to let me down.

Ultimately, it is through this pouring irony that Fussell comes to understand war–and through him I have come to understand it better. Fussell writes, “Irony describes the emotion, whatever it is, occasioned by perceiving some great gulf, half-comic, half-tragic, between what one expects and what one finds. It’s not quite ‘disillusion,’ but it’s adjacent to it.” I meditate on that irony now, remembering how I played with toy soldiers at the feet of my grandfather who, having fought at Pearl Harbor and Tarawa, was proud of his service but told all of his sons not to join the Marines–advice that has, for better and worse, been ignored now for two generations. Was it that he had seen what Marines are asked to do? Was it because he had visited that place “adjacent” to disillusion on some worthless atoll?  I can’t ask him now, but I don’t think his answer would be that different from Fussell’s.  It is, however, an irony that I can never fully understand.

Rest in peace.

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