Paul Fussell is no longer with us. I read and was deeply affected by a number of his books in college and thereafter, including Class, Wartime, and Doing Battle. In addition to his wit and fantastically acerbic writing, I was struck by his cynicism about his WWII service. He served as an infantry platoon commander in the European Theater and was eventually wounded in battle. He didn’t walk out of the war a “rah rah” patriot. More like someone who not only hated war but particularly hated the various cant and euphemism and opportunities for abusive relationships that surrounded it. He also seemed in these works more than a little annoyed at himself for the ways that he embraced that view as a young man.
His works are honest, interesting, and sensitive to the world around him. That he became a literature professor is itself interesting; his type are more and more rare. Ed Rosenheim and some of the old guard at Chicago were WWII vets and, on top of that, they were more grounded and experienced in life than their 60s era successors. True, not every college professor need be a veteran. But it helps to have met different kinds of people and done different kinds of things in life, whether working with one’s hands or being practically employed at some point. And this is especially true for those who would purport to opine about politics or economics or other more practical matters.
College, ideally, is about acquring greater critical thinking skills, as well as a broader perspective and a grounding in the expansive western tradition. There are many ways this goes sideways, from having purely vocational majors like fashion marketing, to the lockstop political correctness of most of the Ivy League. We all can benefit from the crucible of criticism. But the critics themselves do not achieve what they purport to convey insofar as the generation that succeeded Fussell’s are slaves to the most conventional kinds of liberalism and are so unacquainted with life and its many facets . . . and horrors.