Thank God for Paul Fussell and Other Blogposts

I’m seriously contemplating making a regular thing out of the New Republic‘s suspicious silence on Paul Fussell. Granted, events can and do catch editors flatfooted and unprepared. But at this point I fear something worse must be at work.

Fussell died Wednesday. Slate took its time and published a decent essay of Fussell’s literary impact on Friday. There, Fussell admirer Stephen Metcalf wrote that Fussell “was at his best, was most himself, when writing about organized killing,” but judged his influence to be portable to peacetime settings as well. It was a good essay leading up to Memorial Day. I led with it on Real Clear Books this weekend (along with this stinging dissent about Fussell’s book Class). So, eventually, did Arts & Letters Daily.

But from the New Republic, still, crickets.

Thank God for the Atom Bomb

TNR‘s The Book page reposted this “classic” piece by George Kennan on Americans and Russians rather than repost the very famous essay that became the basis for Fussell’s Thank God for the Atom Bomb and other Essays. The front page called out a review by scholar and failed Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff on a book of hand-wringing about free markets with the headline “The Skyboxification of American Life.” TNR’s aggregator The Reader, which at this point specializes in warmed over Arts & Letters Daily links, can’t even bring itself to reheat the Slate link.

Again, as I have said, this is extra odd, because the New Republic published one of Fussell’s most important essays. Now, in the wake of his death, it is proceeding as if that essay never existed at a time when its republication would get actual traffic. Why wouldn’t it want those hits? A few friends have speculated to me that TNR is staffed with a bunch of younger staffers who don’t remember such things, but that can’t be it. Grand culture editor Leon Wieseltier has weathered several regime changes at the magazine, including a recent handover in ownership. The Fussell essay appeared two years before his appointment in 1983 but he must remember it.

So why ignore it? Embarrassment? It’s possible. In the famous essay, Fussell set himself up as the sworn enemy of moral reasoning that is too abstract, too removed from what, these days, we would call the “boots on the ground.”

Fussell responded to liberal moral hand-wringing about Hiroshima on one of its many anniversaries by saying, OK, let’s see what the troops who would have invaded Japan have to say on the subject. He consulted the writings of the grunts and found in them a plausible argument for why one might say “Thank God for the atom bomb.” They argued Japanese society had been driven collectively so war mad that the distinctions we normally make between soldiers and civilians no longer made sense.

Soldiers in the Pacific theater (Fussell got his “ass shot off” in Europe) viewed the entire island chain as one long meat grinder that would kill at least American soldiers who were already pretty chewed up on the eve an armed invasion that didn’t have to happen because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You don’t have to agree with their point of view but it might be worth considering at greater length. You can find that here on this day of memorial, but not on the website of the New Republic.

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  • Dave Hardy

    I am much grieved at the loss of one of our best writers on war and class, not to mention his earlier work on prosody and 18th-C British poetry and prose. His books on the world wars, “The Great War and Modern Memory,” and “Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War,” have been huge influences on my own coming to terms with my wars in southeast Asia and the wars my father and grandfathers fought before. me. This is the first I’ve heard that Dr. Fussell, always a “pissed-off infantry lieutenant,” had died. No mention anywhere else this past week that I know of, a shame. One of the only worthwhile courses I took as a graduate student in English was with David Venturo, one of his former students, who’d studied with him at Rutgers back in the day, again, 18th-C British/Augustan literature. I hope he is as much remembered for his contributions there as he rightfully is for his work on 20th-C warfare.

  • Ian Fairchild


    No obit I have read of him has mentioned TGFTAB! It was an unapologetic assault on the revisionist / pacifist viewpoint and was my first exposure to Fussell. He had a unique voice and will be missed.

  • Kazinski

    My Father in Law was an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed. He said several times he didn’t think he would have survived the war if the bombs hadn’t been dropped. He expected the Imperial Army to fight to the last man, and was pleasantly surprised when the officers weren’t ordered to commit suicide when the Emperor ordered them to surrender.

    • Sardondi

      That the bomb actually saved Japan is a point conveniently ignored by the hate-America chatterers of the mainstream media. (Sorry, redundant.) Also overlooked is the bomb’s positive effect on future generations, and the fact that many of the eternally self-righteous protesters would never had been born had their grandfathers been forced to invade Japan and had subsequently died. Far more lives were saved, and countless more lives came into being because of the bomb being dropped than were lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  • Hope Change

    See also, Laurens van der Post’s “The Prisoner and the Bomb,” about Allied soldiers in Japanese prison camps, and how all the allied soldiers were slated to be killed. “The Prisoner and the Bomb” is a first-hand account, because van der Post, a remarkable man and remarkable writer, was himself one of the prisoners. Van der Post helps us to see what had happened to the collective psyche of the Japanese people, a people van der Post had known and loved since age about 21, when he traveled to Japan as a young writer and journalist. The Prisoner and the Bomb is a book of depth and humanity. If you want to understand the total picture in which the decision to bomb Japan was made, this is an essential book.

  • Charlie Martin

    My father was very much of that opinion. Since he was waiting for the invasion on Okinawa when the bomb was dropped, I always thought he had a very good claim to expert opinion.

  • Ken

    Read the essay, which I had not seen before. What a powerful thing to read on Memorial Day.

  • Bill R

    The author William Manchester was one of those waiting to take part in the invasion of Japan. He gave a lecture saying he was “ecstatic” when he learned of the bomb. The news meant he would see his next birthday.
    After the talk, he was a approached by a Japanese gentlemen, an ex-soldier who had been waiting to repel the invasion. The Japanese said he wanted to talk about the word “ecstatic”. Manchester started to apologize, saying that he was ecstatic he would live, not that all those people died. The ex-soldier interrupted him.

    “Don’t apologize. I was ecstatic too.”

  • theAmericanist

    Methinks you should make a regular thing out of TNR’s failure to note Fussell’s passing, odd as that may sound (on every level — writing about the absence of writing really shouldn’t be much of a career option).

    I remember reading Fussell’s original article. I’ve always sort of assumed that since my Dad was a WW2 Marine, the odds were pretty good that if Truman hadn’t nuked Japan — twice! — neither I nor any of my vast clan would have ever existed. I know all the arguments, but I’ve always found it kinda misplaced the way some people actually want to argue that nuking Japan was wrong or unnecessary.

    The single most intense movie I’ve ever seen — period, bar none, full stop — is “Japan’s Longest Day”, which is about an attempted coup staged by junior officers in the 24 hours between the Emperor’s recording of the surrender statement to the Japanese people, and when it was broadcast. (“The war situation has developed not necessarily to our advantage.”) There is something just weird when Americans think of nuking Japan in a way that is so utterly contrary to how it looked to the Japanese at the time.

    Paul Fussell, RIP.

  • theAmericanist
  • Lina Inverse

    Also worth pointing out is that the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was so prosperous its inhabitants were dying at a horrific rate; I forget the estimates but as I recall by the end of the war they were low six figures per month.

  • David

    My Father-in-law was drafted as a machinist to develop the uranium and plutonium cores for the first bombs at Los Alamos. He said that he received untold thanks after the war from ex-soldiers and marines who knew they were destined to invade Japan. He had many a drink paid for. There was no controversy in the minds of those men. It’s also instructive to remember the fire-bombing raids of Tokyo and other cities where many many more civilians were killed than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a very nasty fight, and ending it quickly was the best outcome for all.

  • Richard Aubrey

    My father was roughly in Fussell’s position in VE Day. Infantry platoon leader, Tired, shot up, but able to fog a mirror, and thus would have been in on the invasion of the Home Islands. Ditto his two brothers, one a bomber pilot, the other training as an Infantry medic. Ditto my mother’s two brothers, one a Marine officer with five Pacific landings, the other a Coast Guard commander whose duty had been convoy escort in the North Atlantic up to that point and would probably have been in the radar picket line, like the one that was devastated off Okinawa. Don’t recall my mother’s brothers in law situation. There were four and by likelihood, one would have perished.
    I was born, but my brother, sister, and most of my cousins were not.

  • Georgiaboy61

    I’ve always figured that I owed my life to the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. My father was a navy enlisted man aboard an attack transport, of the kind that would have been used in a large-scale amphibious landing. Given the casualties inflicted by kamikazes off Okinawa and Iwo Jima, it is possible – perhaps even likely – that my dad and his ship woud have been lost in Operation Downfall. So I have no hesitation whatsoever in saying “Thank God for the atom bomb!”

  • Stan

    There were four cities ‘saved’ for the atomic bombs, two were hit with the nukes and two were not bombed at all.
    Compare those two untouched cities to Tokyo where 100,000 were killed in a single night of conventional bombing.
    The atomic bomb program saved lives from bombing in those two ‘saved’ cities as well ending the conventional bombing of the rest of Japan’s cities.
    Even without counting the invasions the atomic bombs likely saved a lot of lives.

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  • C Moss

    My father turned 18 in 1945 and always believed Harry Truman saved his life. I agree, and add that Truman probably saved the lives of millions of Japanese, incuding civilians who were ready to fight to the death, not to mention imminently starve from disruption of the food supply.