Wartime by Paul Fussell - Book Review

By Carol Costello

In Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, Paul Fussell, through neatly developed prose, debunks homespun myths and provides the reader with a glimpse into the realities of a combatant’s existence during World War II. As a twenty year old lieutenant who led a rifle company in France from 1943 until he was wounded in 1945, Fussell speaks from experience, thereby giving his voice an air of authority to convey the barbaric reality of war. This classic work supports the position that the public at large will have one concept of war while the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines engaged will have the truth. Fussell emphasizes this and immediately makes his aim clear in the preface: “For the past fifty years the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty. I have tried to balance the scales.”[1]

A constant theme throughout the book is that those who are not directly involved in battle cannot understand the horrific truths due to a “deficiency of imagination.” At the time, war was brought to the public through government censored media, thus constraining those on the homefront to comprehend the war only through the mythical depictions provided by the government. The myths presented to the public were staged so as to preserve morale and heighten non-military support for the war effort. One of the most pervasive myths was that the U.S. military was a well-oiled machine that turned out clean-cut and heroic soldiers. Fussell references a magazine cover depicting a soldier poised to charge the enemy in a crisp uniform and tie with a clean shaven face. The reality, as new recruits soon discovered, was that war was not an event to which one wore a tie. Once in battle, uniforms and the men they contained, were quickly covered in mud, blood, and grime. Faces smeared with dirt often betrayed to soldiers’ brave façade as tear stains found their way through blood and grime.

U.S. Marine showing the strains of combat, Saipan.

Wartime also reminds the reader that these combatants were essentially boys who were away from home for the first time; under unimaginable conditions. Fussell notes several times that when men were wounded or dying, the cry of “mother” pervaded the air. These young men were wrought with fear. In the last chapter of the book, the understanding of fear amongst the troops is explained; and it is clear the public was never to be made aware of these debilitating realities. Described are men defecating and urinating in their pants, uncontrollable trembling, and neurosis. It is not uncommon to hear of Viet Nam veterans who suffered nightmares and flashbacks, and it is all too frequently that in the present numerous veterans of war suffer what we now know to be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). To hear of these psychological events being prevalent among combat veterans during the 1940s was a rarity. In no uncertain terms, Fussell attributes this to the media and censorship.

Government censorship and propaganda permitted only the image of fearless men fighting for the Four Freedoms.[2] Supporting this image of American exceptionalism was the media, who were able to control information. At the time, radio was the foremost form of news and American civilians spent hours each day in front of their radios to garner any war related information. As the radio conveys only words, the listener was forced to use his imagination, which promotes the theme that the existence of men on the front line was unimaginable to those without battle experience. Fussell uses the example of a battle season sergeant explaining to a “new guy” that it was okay, even expected to “piss in your pants.” The Allied civilians were never privy to this reality as it was not made public and in civilized society was not fathomed as a possibility. Fussell quotes Walt Whitman, who witnessed some of the atrocities of the American Civil War and stated that “the real war will never get in the books.” Through propaganda and censorship, the public at large was made to believe that the Allied combatants were only good and the enemy was only evil.

Depictions of a sinister and monstrous enemy were essential to all. The troops had to use the technique of dehumanization to convince themselves they were killing only monsters; they were told to “kill as many as you can.” If these young boys were to maintain their sanity and fighting ability, they could not view the enemy as equally frightened young boys who were also following orders. Axis soldiers, however; promoted the same type of propaganda thereby affecting the citizenry of those countries in the same manner. All of the nations involved spewed propaganda to some extent to boost morale and advance a purpose to fight.

The Americans did not have a tangible goal for which to fight. The Free French were fighting for the land as were Russia and Britain. German soldiers may have been fighting for their Führer or the Reich while Japanese men battled for their “Emperor, family, and glory.” According to Fussell, a participant in the War, most Americans were in an “ideological vacuum.” The average citizen was imagining a war to avenge the attack on Pearl Harbor or to stop Hitler’s march across Europe. The troops, however, were fighting simply “to end the war.”

Lt. Paul Fussell, 1945.

These men knew the keys to peace rested in Berlin and Tokyo. They fought for each other, loyalty to their units, and above all else, for survival. They did whatever necessary to maintain their mental faculties and to return home intact. They drank excessively as an “insulation” to the atrocities they witnessed. They were aware of the military foul-ups that never made the news. They were aware of the French civilians who had died on D-Day as a result of U.S. airstrikes too far inland. They knew of the American troops who died on St. Lo during Operation COBRA from friendly fire. While the soldier was aware of these tragic mistakes, the Allied public was only told that the equipment and munitions being produced were flawless and war production continued to turn out replacements for equipment lost in battle. Men were included in the replacements being turned out as in the mind of the military leaders, soldiers were just another mechanized part of combat.

Wartime presents a convincing argument that the true nature of war and its front line participants will never truly be understood by those without experience due to the unimaginable circumstances and the propagandized media. Fussell presents his thesis tacitly to the reader before the book is ever opened. The photo selected for the cover is an image exactly the opposite of the posed pictures used during the War. This photograph shows a man covering his head in terror. He is on the ground curled in the fetal position, perhaps crying “mother,” and has dropped his weapon in order to cover his head. His equipment and body are as one. He depicts a frightened young boy who was but another cog in the war machine. The photo represents any of the thousands of men who were never illustrated on a magazine cover. The man in the photograph and the text between the pages represent the truth of war.


  1. Paul Fussell, Wartime,(New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), ix.
  2. The Four Freedoms were put forth by Franklin Roosevelt in his inaugural address on January 6, 1941. They were: Freedom of Speech; Freedom of Worship; Freedom from Want; Freedom from Fear.