Paul Fussell, 1924-2012
At dawn, I awoke, and what I now saw all all around me were numerous objects I’d miraculously not tripped over in the dark. These were dozens of dead German boys in greenish gray uniforms, killed a day or two before by the company we were replacing. If darkness had mercifully hidden them from us, dawn disclosed them with staring open eyes and greenish white faces and hands like marble, still clutching their rilfes and machine pistols in their seventeen-year-old hands. One body was only a foot or so away from me, and I found myself fascinated by the stubble of his beard, which would have earned him a rebuke on a parade groudn but not here, not anymore. Michelangelo could have made something beautiful out of thse forms, in the tradition of the Dying Gaul, and I was astonished to find that in a way I couldn’t understand, at first they struck me as awful but beautiful. But after a moment, no feeling but horror. My boyish illusions, largely intact to that moment of awakening, fell away all at once, and suddenly I knew that I was not and would never be in a world that was reasonable or just.
…The captain called for me, and as I ran down a forest path, I met a sight even more devastating. The dead I’d seen were boys. Now I saw dead children, rigged out as soldiers. On the path lay two youngsters not older than fourteen. Each had taken a bullet in the head. The brains of one extruded from a one-inch hole in his forehead, pushing aside his woolen visor cap so like a schoolboy’s. The brains of the other were coming out of his nostrils.
At this sight, I couldn’t do what I wanted, go off by myself and cry. I had to pretend to be, if not actually gratified, at least undisturbed by this spectacle of our side victorious. …It wasn’t long before I could articulate for myself the message the war was sending the infantry soldier: “You are expendable. … You are just another body to be used. Since all can’t be damaged or destroyed as they are fed into the machinery, some may survive, but that’s not my fault. Most must be chewed up, and you’ll probably be one of them. This is regrettable, but nothing can be done about it.”
— Paul Fussell, “Doing Battle.”
Paul Fussell died today at 88. May his memory be eternal.