Showing posts with label Paul Fussell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Paul Fussell. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Death Without Publicity

During the Second World War, the war publicity machine widely trumpeted the names of Allied military commanders. In its putative morale-building effort, the contemporary equivalent of ad-men glorified, for instance, British General Montgomery and, of course, American General Eisenhower. Even lesser-unit commanders could be celebrated, such as U. S. Army General Anthony McAuliffe, who was commander of the defending 101st Airborne during the Battle of the Bulge. His reply to a German proposal to surrender, “Nuts!,” became one of the legendary moments of American courage and recalcitrance—“guts”—during the war. Among generals, an eagerness for publicity, as Paul Fussell notes in Wartime, led to the development of “publicity hounds,” the most egregious of which were probably Generals Mark Clark, in Italy, and MacArthur (pictured), in the Pacific, the latter having a huge publicity organization. “Of Clark, David Hunt has said that 'his reading of Clausewitz’s famous dictum was that war was the pursuit of publicity by other means'” (161).

At the level of the common soldier (as opposed to that of the war’s “upper tier,” its commanders), credit “became a crucial concept” (Paul Fussell, Wartime 155). “That all-important home-town audience the troops never forgot,” argues Fussell, because for the soldiers, “ultimate value is assigned by the distant, credulous” hometown crowd—what people were saying back home (155). Curious, then, that in the Kay Kyser wartime film, Around the World (released November 1943), the name of the Marcy McGuire character’s father, killed on a transport ship before he ever actually was able to step onto the battlefield, is never given. Obviously, his proper name, unlike a General’s (the General’s name more significant by virtue of his having to shoulder the heavy demands and responsibilities of power), is not important. The proverbial “unknown soldier,” her dead father becomes an emblem of sacrifice, the sacrifice necessary for all Americans during wartime. Informed of her father’s death (perpetrated by cowards, as the ship was torpedoed), she is asked to put on a stiff upper lip, to buck up, in effect, to sublimate the loss. She is told that her father did, in fact, fight in the war, he just wasn’t able to fight for very long. His death was as valuable to the war effort as any other, since war by its very definition demands a sacrifice by everyone. Names are not important.

These are not idle ruminations, without application to our own time, for as Paul Fussell observes, “The postwar power of 'the media' to determine what shall be embraced as reality is in large part due to the success of the morale culture in wartime. It represents, indeed, its continuation. Today, nothing—neither church, university, library, gallery, philanthropy, foundation, or corporation—no matter how actually worthy and blameless, can thrive unless bolstered by a persuasive professional public-relations operation, supervised by the later avatars of the PR colonels and captains so indispensable to the maintenance of high morale and thus to the conduct of the Second World War” (164).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Wholesome Behavior

In Friedrich A. Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter war occupies a central place, serving as a crucial factor in media transformation. Kittler argues that modern storage and transmission technologies were developed primarily for purposes of warfare. Employing a rather witty aphorism, Kittler claims the entertainment industry constitutes “an abuse of army equipment” (111). There’s perhaps no better illustration of his point than the World War II war movie, which recreated war as a series of clichéd or stereotypical actions, for instance, unshaven, grim-faced but keen-eyed soldiers in soiled uniforms creeping stealthily with fixed bayonets through clouds of smoke toward the enemy’s stronghold (that is, Certain Death), the very image of authentic war. (In contrast, in Hemingway’s war fiction, soldiers spend most of their time in the trenches flat on their stomachs.) During the Second World War, Paul Fussell observes in Wartime, Hollywood films such as Bataan and Guadalcanal Diary (both 1943) “established the paradigm of the ideal infantry situation the audience was expected to credit” (190). (“Credit” became one of the oft-used means of maintaining morale among the various branches of the military.) The ideal infantry unit represented America in microcosm, the “melting-pot” metaphor employed as an agent of ideology, representing what Fussell refers to as the “universal platoon” (190). The typical platoon, or America in microcosm, was represented as follows:

·      The Experienced Leader (the Moses figure; doesn’t make it)
·      The Inexperienced Youth (makes it)
·      The Comic (think “Private Joker” of Full Metal Jacket)
·      The Cynic (the Saul of Tarsus/St. Paul paradigm, transformed by the idealistic and selfless sacrifice he witnesses into The True Believer)
·      An African American and/or Hispanic
·      One Private Each From:
1.     Brooklyn
2.     Texas
3.     The Middle West

Although there were various plot permutations in the Hollywood war movie, as indicated above The Leader always died (strictly adhered to even in post-war war films such as 1949’s Sands of Iwo Jima, in which the John Wayne character is, unfairly, killed by a sniper after the battle is over). The Inexperienced Youth always survived (validating youthful idealism as opposed to cynicism), while the various other emblematic characters would survive at the screenwriter’s whim. Fussell observes about Guadalcanal Diary (still above) that there’s so much choral music “it functions as a virtual musical”—songs include “Sweet Genevieve,” “Rock of Ages,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” and “Home on the Range.” In addition to the music, the members of the universal platoon are all “crazy about sports,” all having deep loyalties “to various baseball teams” (190-91). The narrative dictates that American stoicism prevails, of course, and the jokes and wisecracks are unremitting. But there’s more, relevant to Kittler’s quip about “the abuse of army equipment”:

Because no film company could be expected to possess its own tanks, bombers, or warships, the services’ had to be used, and the services refused to co-operate without approving the screenplay in advance, insisting on changes to make sure that little remained but the bromides of wholesome behavior and successful courageous action. (191-92)

The trouble is, for propagandistic purposes, these wholesome representatives of the American “melting-pot” had to relish, with obvious sadistic delight, in “the pain and death of others” (192). Good triumphs, which is the Hollywood equivalent of the success story. But as film historians Koppes and Black observe, “Few pictures . . . dared breathe what everyone knew but found hard to voice aloud—that death was random and success only partly related to one’s deserts” (qtd. in Wartime, 191).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Common Cause

In my last entry I wrote about Casablanca (1942) as an example of wartime propaganda, about how the film enacted the ideological need to value (public) duty over (individual) desire, which corresponded to the wartime need for sexual abstinence and fidelity. I don’t claim any originality in this insight, as I think the film’s ideological purpose, given the virtue of “20/20” hindsight, is rather “obvious” in this regard, as many critics have observed. However, it occurred to me that it is probably worth mentioning that the film, seen also with the clarity of hindsight, also enacts America’s wartime sense of ideological purposelessness. Historian Paul Fussell, in Wartime, argues that the reason why Americans fought the Germans was even less clear than why they were fighting the Japanese (the reason for fighting the latter was revenge against the attack on Pearl Harbor). Although Victor Laszlo refers to Nazi concentration camps when addressing the Nazi military commander, Major Strasser, the death camps were not widely known about in the late summer of 1942 when the film was made, as the U. S. government had downplayed the brutality of Nazi anti-Semitism before the war. Hence there’s no clear sense of the nature or extent of Nazi criminality in Casablanca—they are, simply, the villains. Major Strasser seems confident that the victory of the Third Reich is inevitable. He and his fellow officers sing one (traditional) German folk song in the film, and his villainy is defined by whatever sort of (undefined) act of brutality he perpetrates on his captive, Ugarte (Peter Lorre). Victor Laszlo is wanted by the Nazis because he is a resistance leader fighting Nazi tyranny, and hence is a figurehead (but not a Jewish one). He has been tortured (as indicated by his reference to the “more persuasive methods” used when he was a prisoner in a concentration camp), but the word “torture” is never used. (The question of whether Ugarte is tortured is unclear, but his death is highly suspicious. He was murdered, but was he tortured? We're never explicitly told.) When Rick has finally made his decision to help Laszlo (and Ilsa) escape from Casablanca by giving them the "Letters of Transit" to board the plane to Lisbon, Laszlo praises Rick’s return “to the fight”—they are now fighting on the same side, for the same cause. In his chapter in Wartime entitled “The Ideological Vacuum,” Fussell argues that since Americans didn’t have a positive reason for fighting the war, they fell back on sheer pragmatism—the belief that “common cause would somehow substitute for formulation of purpose or meaning” (139). Hence Rick is told by Laszlo, “this time I know our side will win,” meaning they are now fighting together for a common cause. They are now on the same “side,” but there still remains, to use Fussell's phraseology, an “ideological vacuum.” Outside of common cause, there remains no clear purpose or meaning in fighting the war.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Sing-Along

The effect of World War II on jazz music was to render the modernist values jazz had come to represent in the 1920s and 30s—individualism and spontaneity, represented by the improvised solo—unfashionable. The individualism represented by popular personalities such as Louis Armstrong, for instance, was devalued, while the virtue of “tightness,” represented by Glenn Miller’s big band, was highly prized because it represented group cohesion and communal harmony. His Army Air Force Band cemented the relationship between self-effacement and subservience to the group, or unit. In Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (Oxford UP, 1989), his revisionary history of World War II, Paul Fussell discusses the popular music that was played in Allied factories, “instrumental music only,” suggesting that instrumentals were associated with the wartime values of conformity and mindless labor, the values of the machine and assembly line. Fussell notes that the most popular songs during the war were about sexual depravation or pleas for fidelity, for instance, the Glenn Miller Band's “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” (recorded by other bands at the time, of course):

Don’t go walkin’ down Lover’s Lane with anyone else but me
Anyone else but me, anyone else but me, no, no, no
Don’t go walkin’ down Lover’s Lane with anyone else but me
Til I come marchin’ home

I just got word from a guy who heard from the guy next door to me
The girl he met just loves to pet and it fits you to a T
So, don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me
Til I come marchin’ home

Fussell also notes that if they were not about sexual abstinence and self-denial (individual desires, as were personal opinions, counter-productive), they were about nothing at all, e.g., “The Beer Barrel Polka,” AKA “Roll Out the Barrel.” Most of the hit songs containing vocals were communal or intended as sing-alongs, such as “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” To make his point clear about the function of music during the war, Fussell cites Eileen M. Sullivan: “There was no room in this war-culture for individual opinions or personalities, no freedom of dissent or approval; the culture was homogeneous, shallow, and boring” (195).