Friday, November 12, 2004 +

Paul Fussell on Religion in War

From The Initial Shock . . . A Conversation with Paul Fussell

Hackney: But to get to the reality of war, you have to grapple somehow with the horror, do you not?

Fussell: Indeed. And one thing one can't help noticing is the efficacy of religion before the nineteenth century at dealing with these problems and answering some of these unanswerable questions. By the time of the Great War, religion is practically dead. By the time of the Second World War, it's no help at all.

The chaplains that were attached to the infantry that I was in practically never did spiritual work because they knew they'd be ridiculed. What they did was to apply bandages and surgical scissors, assisting the medics and calming people down psychologically. But everybody recognized that religion was no help whatever.

. . .

Hackney: You write in one of your essays—your essay “My War” in The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations, which is a wonderful collection—you say toward the end of that essay, “Those who fought know a secret about themselves, and it is not very nice.”

Fussell: They have experienced secretly and privately their natural human impulse toward sadism and brutality. As I say in this new book of mine [Doing Battle], not merely did I learn to kill with a noose of piano wire put around somebody's neck from behind, but I learned to enjoy the prospect of killing that way. It's those things that you learn about yourself that you never forget. You learn that you have much wider dimensions than you had imagined before you had to fight a war. That's salutary. It's well to know exactly who you are so you can conduct the rest of your life properly.