Bookmark, episode 203

Host Lewis Lapham conducts a round table discussion with oral historian Studs Terkel and author Paul Fussell on the subject of World War II. Fussell had just written a book about WWII entitled Wartime.

00:00Copy video clip URL The video begins with a countdown and title screen. It is followed by the intro sequence for the program.

01:02Copy video clip URL Louis Lapham greets the viewing audience and begins by talking about the subject matter for the episode: Paul Fussell’s book, Wartime, and the effects of WWII on the American psyche. He starts by saying, “I think it’s fair to say that the second World War is the single most decisive event shaping the American experience in the 20th century.” Lapham goes on to introduce both Paul Fussell and Studs Terkel. He begins to talk about Fussell’s book and the themes found within. Lapham then asks Fussell whether he believes that the American people’s false perception of WWII continues to influence us in the modern day and age. Fussell responds by stating that he does not fully agree with that assumption and comments on the current American psyche in relation to war. “It’s undeniable that our comfort with euphemism at the moment, our comfort with ideas of violence, which is all right as long as we do it, and our reconciliation to various indecencies of international behavior which we commit together with everyone else… I think those are some of the legacies of the war that are very seldom looked at. It accustomed us to a sense that violence is okay as long as it’s pursued in what strikes us as a good cause.” Fussell goes on to talk about the fact that the Defense Department used to be referred to as the War Department.

04:19Copy video clip URL Lapham brings up the fact that the U.S. Military now uses the term “violence processing” when referring to war. Terkel then responds to that by sarcastically saying that he likes the term. He then goes on to praise Fussell’s book and points out the cover and how it relates to this notion of euphemisms about the military. (The cover is a picture of a soldier lying in a patch of grass in the fetal position.) He asks Fussell what the picture would be classified as according to military standards. Fussell states that what the soldier is going through is something called “combat fatigue.” In a glib tone of vice, Terkel refers to that as a “sweet word.” The three then go on to talk about the euphemisms found in all aspects of WWII. Terkel and Fussell also talk about WWII reporter Ernie Pyle and his more accepting way of documenting the war. The three also discuss the lack of real, honest reporting during WWII.

06:30Copy video clip URL Lapham states that one of the main points in Fussell’s book is the fact that the war turned many people into “puny anonyms.” Fussell responds, “One thing that fascinates me is how the war accustomed people to imagining that a person is his outside and that he has no inside. I’m thinking about how in the war you could instantly classify everybody by the uniform they wore, the rank insignia they had up, the medals they had on, and so the whole art of understanding personality and character is something very complicated and perhaps unknowable.” Terkel then comments on how WWII has had a “deleterious effect on our thinking.” Lapham asks Terkel about his book “The Good War.” Terkel states that the title is ironic, “because the adjective ‘good’ and the noun ‘war’ are, shall we say, slightly incompatible.”

08:01Copy video clip URL Lapham makes an observation about propaganda becoming a habit among war reporting in America. Fussell responds by saying, “It’s gotten so you can’t believe anything coming out of Washington, at least I can’t. The minute anybody denies something, I know it’s true, instinctively. And all my friends act the same way–my friends who were in the war and who watched the course of the influence of the war on subsequent life. But we’ve gotten accustomed to living in a propaganda environment and the result is that even the most brilliant people find it hard to think for themselves anymore.” Terkel then tells a story about a character from Fussell’s book. The story reflects the false sense of triumph and adventure among many Americans during WWII. Lapham then makes the observation that many soldiers tended to avoid combat at all costs. Fussell responds to this by saying that many educated soldiers, specifically college educated soldiers, were usually not seen on the front lines. Terkel then goes on to talk about the subject of race within the war. Terkel states that many Americans during WWII looked at the Japanese with much more contempt than they looked at with the Germans. Terkel goes on to tell the story of a marine named Eugene Sledge, whom Terkel interviewed for his book, “The Good War.” Terkel speaks of Sledge’s recollection of the hypocrisy and sadistic tendencies of many young American soldiers during WWII. Terkel recounts Sledge’s abysmal stories about some of the soldiers actions during the war.

11:43Copy video clip URL Fussell then makes a very interesting point about what he and others had to do in order to survive in a war environment. “Because most people don’t realize that to win a war and to be good at it, that is to survive and to get home alive and be on programs like this, you have to learn sadism. You have to learn it. It is a part of the operation. … I can’t tell you how much pleasure it is, and what a shameful pleasure it is to win a firefight when you’re leading an infantry unit during which you kill fifteen adolescent boys. It is fun. It is fun to win, and winning requires that you extirpate in yourself all feelings of mercy, pity, sympathy. That’s the only way you can get home alive and most people don’t realize this.”

12:27Copy video clip URL Lapham then asks whether that “sadistic fun” drives those to glorify war. Fussell responds, “I think what actually happens is so unspeakable that it invites a sort of glorification as a cover or sort of candy coating, otherwise, people wouldn’t do it at all.” Fussell then talks about the interest in his book from many military individuals. He goes on to talk about his own philosophical beliefs and having a focus on actuality and truth. Terkel responds to Fussell’s comments by highlighting the importance of thinking in those specific ways. He then emphasizes the importance in speaking up and questioning authority in this country.

14:44Copy video clip URL Lapham makes the observation that in Fussell’s book, Wartime, he states that many Americans were not good soldiers during the second World War. Fussell responds by talking about the American soldier’s need for comfort and leisure and explains how that does not transfer over to war environments very effectively. Fussell states that the Germans were the best soldiers because of their ability to obey. Lapham then talks about the notion of the U.S. being a militarist nation. Fussell talks about the fact that U.S. soldiers in WWII were novices in comparison to the other countries involved. He speaks of the lack of proper training before being thrown into the conflict. He also points out the many blunders and accidental killings that American soldiers were behind. Terkel then talks about the notion of “precision bombing” and how it is a complete farce and ineffective in military conflicts. Fussell makes a few comments about the subject as well. The three go on to talk about how the U.S. won the war.

18:40Copy video clip URL Lapham comments on Fussell’s methodology for his arguments in the book. He also asks Fussell about the notion that many people have not written about the events of WWII in comparison to the vast body of literature dedicated to WWI. Fussell makes a few comments about these subjects before Lapham asks both men why Americans wanted to believe in the romance of the war. Terkel responds first by saying, “There’s a crazy thing. Some guys say that war was the climax: after you came back, everything was anti-climax. It may be a commentary on the drabness of our lives. … To them [soldiers], some of the guys, it’s the high moment of their lives.” Fussell then talks about the effects of the Great Depression on many American men and how that may have contributed to the romanticized view of  WWII. Terkel the recalls a rather poignant story about a farmer who had lost his son in the war.

21:39Copy video clip URL Lapham then reads aloud one of the lines from Fussell’s book about the meaning of WWII being inaccessible to Americans. Fussell responds by talking about Europeans and their deeper connection to the tragedies that took place on their land and compares to the Americans’ lack thereof. Terkel then talks about the fact that the U.S. was the only major power to never be bombed or invaded on its land during WWII. He then raises the question as to whether we as a country have to go through some sort of catastrophic event to gain a better understanding of tragedy and emphasizes the fact that we should have already been understanding tragedy. Fussell then talks about his reasons for writing the book. Lapham then makes a few observations the romantic notions of WWII and how it influenced American foreign policy. Terkel then makes a very decisive remark. “Since the atom was split, everything in the world has changed, will never be the same, except the way we think. Unless we think anew. This brings a catastrophe, so we’ve got to have a new way of thinking.” Lapham then asks whether the two men see a new way of thinking on the horizon. Fussell is quick to say no and begins to talk about the notion of many young American men joining the Marines in order to test their manhood. “Until we redefine the nature of being a man, a male person, wars are inevitable, because the clientele, the personnel for them will always rush forward in order to test themselves to see if they are ‘manly enough.'” Terkel then makes a few comments about discovering another dimension in all of our lives and emphasizes the need to think anew. Lapham ends the discussion and thanks both men for being on the show.

26:42Copy video clip URL The credits begin to roll.

28:01Copy video clip URL Tape ends.

 

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