Article — From the January 1982 issue

My War

How I got irony in the infantry

( 3 of 10 )

Irrational combat

It was my first experience of abroad, and my lifelong affair with France dates from the moment I first experienced such un-American phenomena as: formal manners and a respect for the language; a well-founded skepticism; the pollarded plane trees on the Avenue R. Schumann; the red wine and real bread; the pissoirs in the streets; the international traffic signs and the visual public language hinting at a special French understanding of things—Hôtel de Ville, Défense d’afficher; the smell of Turkish tobacco when one has been brought up on Virginia and burley. An intimation of what we might be opposing was supplied by the aluminum Vichy coinage. On one side, a fasces and État Francais. No more Republic. On the other, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité replaced by Travail (as in Arbeit Macht Frei), Famille, and Patrie (as in Vaterland). But before we had time to contemplate all this, we were moving rapidly northeast. After a truck ride up the Rhone valley, still pleasant with girls and flowers and wine, our civilized period came to an abrupt end. On the night of November 11 (nice irony there) we were introduced into the line at St. Dié, in Alsace.

We were in “combat.” I find the word embarrassing, carrying as it does false chivalric overtones (as in “single combat”). But synonyms are worse: “fighting” is not accurate, because much of the time you are being shelled, which is not fighting but suffering; “battle” is too high and remote; “in action” is a euphemism suited more to dire telegrams than description. “Combat” will have to do, and my first hours of it I recall daily, even now. They fueled, and they still fuel, my view of things.

Everyone knows that a night relief is among the most difficult of infantry maneuvers. But we didn’t know it, and in our innocence we expected it to go according to plan. We and the company we were replacing were cleverly and severely shelled; it was as if the Germans a few hundred feet away could see us in the dark and through the thick pine growth. When the shelling finally stopped, at about midnight, we realized that although near the place we were supposed to be, until daylight we were hopelessly lost. The order came down to stop where we were, lie down among the trees, and get some sleep. We would finish the relief at first light. Scattered over several hundred yards, the 250 of us in F Company lay down in a darkness so thick we could see nothing at all. Despite the terror of our first shelling (and several people had been hit), we slept as soundly as babes. At dawn I awoke, and what I saw all around were numerous objects I’d miraculously not tripped over in the dark. These objects were dozens of dead German boys in greenish-gray uniforms, killed a day or two before by the company we were relieving. If darkness had hidden them from us, dawn disclosed them with open eyes and greenish-white faces like marble, still clutching their rifles and machine pistols in their seventeen-year-old hands, fixed where they had fallen. (For the first time I understood the German phrase for the war dead: die Gefallenen.) Michelangelo could have made something beautiful out of these forms, in the Dying Gaul tradition, and I was startled to find that at first, in a way I couldn’t understand, they struck me as beautiful. But after a moment, no feeling but shock and horror. My adolescent illusions, largely intact to that moment, fell away all at once, and I suddenly knew I was not and never would be in a world that was reasonable or just. The scene was less apocalyptic than shabbily ironic: it sorted so ill with modern popular assumptions about the idea of progress and attendant improvements in public health, social welfare, and social justice. To transform guiltless boys into cold marble after passing them through unbearable fear and humiliation and pain and contempt seemed to do them an interesting injustice. I decided to ponder these things. In 1917, shocked by the Battle of the Somme and recovering from neurasthenia, Wilfred Owen was reading a life of Tennyson. He wrote his mother: “Tennyson, it seems, was always a great child. So should I have been, but for Baumont Hamel.” So should I have been, but for St. Dié.

After that, one day was much like another: attack at dawn, run and fall and crawl and sweat and worry and shoot and be shot at and cower from mortar shells, always keeping up a jaunty carriage in front of one’s platoon; and at night, “consolidate” the objective, usually another hill, sometimes a small town, and plan the attack for the next morning. Before we knew it we’d lost half the company, and we all realized then that for us there would be no way out until the war ended but sickness, wounds, or oblivion. And the war would end only as we pressed our painful daily advance. Getting it over was our sole motive. Yes, we knew about the Jews. But our skins seemed to us more valuable at the time.

was a contributing editor of <em>Harper's Magazine.</em>

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  • siestadrive

    This is one of the best, saddest, wisest things I have ever read.

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