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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | BIOGRAPHY

DOING BATTLE The Making of a Skeptic By Paul Fussell Little, Brown: 320 pp., $24

December 29, 1996|RUSSELL F. WEIGLEY

"Southern California was simply a metaphor for optimism, or a prop to advance its cause." Thinking that, and nearly drained of optimism by his experiences and wounds as a combat infantryman in World War II, Paul Fussell turned his back on Pasadena, where he had grown up; on Balboa, where he had summered; and on his undergraduate school, Pomona College.

Yet Fussell--who went on to reap international acclaim for his penetrating studies of soldiers during World Wars I and II--knows now that the Harvard graduate studies he imagined would set him apart from anything available in the West were no better than what he could have found at the University of California.

The bitterness nourished by [World War II] remains, and how the war changed him is the main theme of his new memoir. It is not just the loss of happily remembered boyhood that rankles him: It is its loss to his own mistakes in combat, which were abetted by a thoroughly messed-up, bungling, stumbling Army. It all happened on behalf of a cause whose admirable aspects he cannot deny, but in a war where he found no other redeeming qualities, no glory, but only incompetence and horror, Fussell says he lost his innocence to waste and futility.

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