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War and Memory

Paul Fussell, the distinguished literary critic, historian and combat veteran (as an infantry lieutenant he fought and was wounded in France in 1945) recently commented on some of the most affecting episodes in The War, Ken Burns’ documentary of World War II.

Fussell is also known for his landmark 1975 book, The Great War and Modern Memory, a remarkably dense and subtle summary of how wartime experiences are remembered and written about. In it he posits, “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.”

He might have added that nearly every war veteran is silent because every war is worse than expected. “He never talked about the war,” is so commonplace an observation that it amounts to a cliché, as well as an epitaph. So rare is the voluble veteran who talks freely about combat that listeners might believe that person a fraud, akin to the pathetic wannabes who buy medals and lie about exploits with the Green Berets.

Still, it is essential that some veterans do step out of their silence, because the recorded experiences of war and every effort to understand military history are entirely dependent on memory—whether preserved in letters, unit histories or interviews. It is understandable that so many choose silence because, as Fussell notes, the experiences of war are so enormously different from normal life that it must seem impossible to do them justice. It may also require a heroic level of honesty.

The late David Halberstam recorded an instance of such honesty in his final book, The Coldest Winter. He described his interview with Sergeant Paul McGee, who’d survived—and remembered—his unit’s experiences in Korea: “I went out and found his home, and for four hours it all poured out, what had happened in those three days at Chipyongni when he was a young platoon leader. It was as if he had been waiting for me to come by for 55 years, and he remembered everything as if it had been yesterday.” That is the essential raw material of history.