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Book Review : Polemicist Backs the Use of the Bomb

June 23, 1988|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Thank God for the Atomic Bomb and Other Essays by Paul Fussell (Summit Books: $17.95; 267 pages)

In 1981, after Paul Fussell published a fiery article in the New Republic defending the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a justifiable alternative to the terrible casualties to be incurred had the United States invaded Japan, the magazine printed a letter by the social ethicist, Michael Walzer, disputing him.

Fussell's articles describe the daily horrors of ground combat in the Pacific. He had led a platoon there. He suggested that those who now argue that the bomb was a crime never actually saw the fighting; in fact, he adds, they were mostly in their prams at the time. He accused them of righteous canting. Walzer's reply was that it is necessary to "accept the risks of righteousness."

Fussell reprints his article--its original, milder title now stepped up to "Thank God for the Atomic Bomb"--along with Walzer's letter and his own reply. They make up the lead section in this collection of his essays.

The author notes triumphantly that Walzer was only 10 in 1945; thus seeming to imply--alas, poor Gibbon!--that the only way to write history is to show up for it. And he explains his personal style of sensibility. The explanation can serve as a rough guide to what he does, or at least hopes to do, in these essays.

The Fussell style is "literary-artistic-historical." Its purpose is to complicate problems, "leaving them messier than before and making you feel terrible." This contrasts with the world's Walzers, whose method is "social-scientific-political." It "solves problems and cleans up the place, making you feel tidy and satisfied."

More Polemic Pieces

Fussell's model for the more polemical pieces in his collection is George Orwell. He devotes an essay to Orwell; and it is a good and understanding explication of the man's exhilarating honesty and sense of paradox, along with a fair appraisal of his limitations. Orwell, Fussell finds, had an unerring ear for the voices--their truths and lies--of the 19th and 20th centuries; he was weaker at understanding the harsh and more stylized tones of earlier ages.

Fussell can reliably understand Orwell, but he is erratic at being him. "Thank God for the Atomic Bomb," at first glance, is an Orwellian shocker of a title; it stirs you up, outrages you, makes you think. Yet it goes that little bit further; it has a whiff of the brutal to it. It has gone over the edge of violence that Orwell, whose taste was as limpid as his anger, regularly maneuvered along without quite falling over.

Fussell, whose "The Great War and Modern Memory" is a striking account of the exalted imagery men took with them into the trenches of World War I, and its violent correction by mud and death, has some trenchant things to say. Certainly, the agonizing inch-by-inch fighting in the Pacific, and the prospect of hundreds of thousands of deaths on both sides in the event of an invasion of Japan, have tended to fade in the eyes of those who assume that the bombings had nothing to justify them.

Horrors of Hiroshima

Furthermore, the author does not minimize the horrors of Hiroshima. As Orwell might have done, he includes excerpts from the accounts of survivors. On the other hand, he skates precariously over the arguments of those who believe more time should have been allowed for negotiations. He does not even mention the possibility of a demonstration detonation--at worst, on some more thinly populated part of Japan--before destroying the two cities. There are arguments against such a thing, but we get a sense of un-Orwellian trimming to make a point fit.

In "Writing in Wartime: The Uses of Innocence," he performs a fascinating bit of detective work on "The Diary of a Dutch Boy Refugee." A best seller published here during World War II, it purported to be a first-person account by a Dutch boy of the German bombing of Rotterdam and the subsequent harassing and strafing of refugees trying to escape.

Fussell has discovered that the boy and the book were, in fact, the invention of an American writer, an editor at what was then Harcourt Brace. He goes on to make a plausible case that the effort was part of the British propaganda campaign to mobilize U.S. sentiment for getting into the war against the Germans.

In his indignation, though, he goes rather far. He tells us that he is not suggesting that Anne Frank never existed, nor that "Four Quartets" was written by T. S. Eliot "at the urging of the British Ministry of Information in order to make British spiritual life look good."

"Not suggesting" is, of course, a traditional rhetorically suggestive device. Fussell is simply being high-spirited; but there's a mean edge to it. And though it is provocative to write that "much of the American perception of embattled, heroic Britain was created specifically by the firm of Harcourt Brace"--they also published "Mrs. Miniver"--some of the credit might conceivably go to the British.

A Quieter Tone

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