Article — From the January 1982 issue

My War

How I got irony in the infantry

Over the past few years I find I’ve written a great deal about war, which is odd because I’m supposed to be a professor of English literature. And I find I’ve given the Second World War a uniformly bad press, rejecting all attempts to depict it as a sensible proceeding or to mitigate its cruelty and swinishness. I have rubbed readers’ noses in some very noisome materials—corpses, maddened dogs, deserters and looters, pain, Auschwitz, weeping, scandal, cowardice, mistakes and defeats, sadism, hangings, horrible wounds, fear and panic. Whenever I deliver this unhappy view of the war, especially when I try to pass it through a protective screen of irony, I hear from outraged readers. Speaking of some ironic aesthetic observations I once made on a photograph of a mangled sailor on his ruined gunmount, for example, a woman from Brooklyn found me “callous,” and accused me of an “overwhelming deficiency in human compassion.” Another reader, who I suspect has had as little empirical contact with the actualities of war face to face as the correspondent from Brooklyn, found the same essay “black and monstrous” and concluded that the magazine publishing it (Harper’s, actually) “disgraced itself.”

How did I pick up this dark, ironical, flip view of the war? Why do I enjoy exhibiting it? The answer is that I contracted it in the infantry. Even when I write professionally about Walt Whitman or Samuel Johnson, about the theory of comparative literature or the problems facing the literary biographer, the voice that’s audible is that of the pissed-off infantryman, disguised as a literary and cultural commentator. He is embittered that the Air Corps had beds to sleep in, that Patton’s Third Army got all the credit, that noncombatants of the Medical Administrative and Quartermaster Corps wore the same battle stars as he, that soon after the war the “enemy” he had labored to destroy had been rearmed by his own government and positioned to oppose one of his old allies. “We broke our ass for nothin’,” says Sergeant Croft in The Naked and the Dead. These are this speaker’s residual complaints while he is affecting to be annoyed primarily by someone’s bad writing or slipshod logic or lazy editing or pretentious ideas. As Louis Simpson says, “The war made me a foot-soldier for the rest of my life,” and after any war foot soldiers are touchy.

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

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October 2019