Friday, September 21, 2012

An Illustration of Modernism by Paul Fussell

It was while retreating this night up the silent, snowy slow that I saw a wonderfully absurd, bizarre, and unforgettable sight quite surpassing that in the farmhouse near St. Die. There was some moonlight that night, perhaps one of the reasons our raid failed so conspicuously. Climbing slowly up the hill, draped with a long belt of machine-gun ammunition like a German soldier in a cheap patriotic illustration, I came upon a perfectly preserved dead waxwork German squad.

By this time the whole front was silent. There was no rifle or machine-gun firing, no artillery, no mortars, not even clanking tank treads or truck motors to be heard in the distance. The spectacle that caused my mouth to open in wonder, and almost in admiration, consisted of five German soldiers spread out prone in a semicircular skirmish line. They were still staring forward, alert for signs of the Amis. Behind them, in the center of the semicircle, was an equally rigid German medic with his Red Cross armband who had been crawling forward to do his work. In his left hand, a roll of two-inch bandage, in his right, a pair of surgical scissors. I could infer a plausible narrative.

One of more of the men in the group had been wounded, and as the medic crawled forward to do his duty, his intention was rudely frustrated by an unspeakably loud crack overhead, and instantly the lights went out for all of them. The episode was doubtless a tribute to our proximity artillery fuse, an invaluable invention which arrived on the line that winter, enabling a shell to explode not when it struck something but when it came near to striking something. Here, it must have gone off five or ten yards above its victims. Or perhaps the damage had been done by the kind of artillery stunt called time-on-target – a showy mathematical technique of firing many guns from various places so that regardless of the varying distances from the target, the shells arrive all at the same time. The surprise is devastating, and the destruction immediate and unimaginable. Whichever, the little waxwork squad, its soldiers unbloody and unmarked, had all left life at the same instant.

For a moment I contemplated this weird tableau. It was a sight that somehow brought art and life into strange relation. If an artist had arranged these figures this way, with the compelling narrative element, an audience could hardly refrain from praise. It was so cold the bodies didn’t smell, and they’d not begun visibly to decompose, but their open eyes were clouded, and snow had lodged in their ears and the openings inn their cloths and the slits in their caps. Their flesh was whitish green. Although they were prone, their knees and elbows were bent, as if they were athletes terribly surprised while sprinting. They looked like plaster simulacra excavated from some chill white Herculaneum.

No one but me, apparently, saw the sight in the moonlight. Had I hallucinated the whole thing? Or was it some kind of show put on for my benefit. Was I intended somehow to interpret it as an image of the whole war and its meaning, less a struggle between good and evil than a worldwide disaster implicating everyone alike, scarcely distinguishing its victims in the general shambles and ruin? Whatever it meant, this experience remained with me as a prime illustration of modernism, not that it occurred but that it seemed so normal, and that no one seemed to care. . .

From the mortal-farcical events of the war I was learning about the eternal presence in human affairs of accident and contingency. All planning was not just likely to recoil ironically: it was almost certain to do so. Human beings were clearly not like machines. They were curious congeries of twisted will and error, misapprehension and misrepresentation, and the expected could not be expected of them.

Others in the war were learning this new in-American view of the instability of human hopes and the unpredictability of human actions. In the Normandy invasion, dropping paratroops from the 82nd and the 101st Airborne Divisions at night practically guaranteed a fiasco, to the general astonishment of the planners. A D-Day observer of the surprising sinking of the clever dual-drive tanks off the Normandy beaches, which went down like stones with the helpless, puzzled crews inside, said later that for him this catastrophe “diminished forever the credibility of the concepts of strategic planning and of tactical order; it provided me instead with a sense of chaos, random disaster, and vulnerability.”

A couple of months of war taught us a lot about courage too. We came to understand what more have known than spoken of, that normally each man begins with a certain reservoir, or bank account, of bravery, but that each time it is called upon, some is expanded, never to be regained. After several months it has all been expanded, and it’s time for your breakdown. . .

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