Saturday, June 12, 2010

Chickenshit by Paul Fussell



What does that rude term signify? It does not imply complaint about the inevitable inconveniences of military life: overcrowding and lack of privacy, tedious institutional cookery, deprivation of personality, general boredom. Nothing much can be done about those things. Chickenshit refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige; sadism thinly disguised as necessary discipline; a constant "paying off of old scores"; and insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of the ordinances.

Chickenshit is so called- instead of horse or bull- or elephant shit- because it is small- minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war. Its victims, generally, have it coming for disagreeing on matters of taste: asking questions sergeant couldn't answer, interposing a 'liberal' observation, uttering mild remonstrances in combat, being a Jew, the 'long hair', the artist, - the 'so-called intellectual'- one who sneers at sports, the 'smart ass', the 'stuck up, the foreigner, anyone conceived to be “not our crowd”, being “sloppy or in the U.K., 'slack'.

Because chickenshit shifts the emphasis from reality to appearance, its favored terms of approbation are smartness and swank [ today we have 'Smart Diplomacy'].


Chickenshit is for 'keeping the men on their toes' , frustrating their plans for a good time. For the victims it has its own serial psychological structure generating maximum anxiety over matters of minimum significance. Its stages are nervous waiting, last-minute flurry, final resignation , the sagging aftermath... the official power to inconvenience but as a Vietnam veteran once noted, 'The needle is only so long, you can escape from it by going forward into combat. ( Donald Pfarrer in Neverlight)


It would be hard not to notice the proximity of Allied chickenshit to certain stigmata of Fascism, all sorts of opportunities for irony present themselves and much of the writing from World War Two tends not so much to convey news from the battlefield as to expose the chickenshit lurking behind it , like Catch-22. Exceptions are to be found in popular fiction, the works Leon Uris and Herman Wouk, for example. Their audience being untrained in the irony of a world in which blunders are more common than usual, in their novels, especially Wouk's overproduced ones, there are few blunders or errors and everyone does what he was supposed to do, with minimal chickenshit. (Result: Victory).


The more verbally confident poetry of World War One emerged from a proud verbal culture, where language was trusted to convey and retain profound, permanent meaning, while the later world from which the laconic notations of Uris and Wouk arise is one so doubtful of language that the responsible feel that only the fewest words, debased as they have been by advertising, publicity, politics and the rhetoric of nationalism, should be hazarded. In his poem Memorial to the Great Big Beautiful Self-Sacrificing Advertisers, Frederick Ebright concludes with the line “there is dignity in silence”


It was not just among soldiers and journalists that uncertainties about the War's meaning arose; that no very precise ideological appeal would work on the wartime audience was a fact accurately sensed by ad-men...Clearly, any attempt to define that new world ("that we are fighting to make ready") would result in bafflement , dispute and severe loss of confidence in Carnation products. Vagueness was all.


The post- war survey found that 14% of the bombs dropped never went off (ironically balancing out the large number of U.S. anti-tank mines that went off when they weren't supposed to) Was sabotage behind these failures? No, simply error. It is hard to embrace ironies like this because the human mind, avid for clear meaning, experiences frustration and pain when confronted by events which seem purposeless or meaningless. Even more today, in wartime everything you might hear and read during a day might be false, planted to be passed on to deceive either you or the enemy. Living in wartime thus resembled living in a play, with nothing real or certain. You literally did not know for sure what was going on, and you had to take on faith the public appearance of things, costly as this might prove for perceptual or intellectual life."


In reality, war is opposed to every reasonable conception of what life is for, every ambition of the mind or delight in the senses. Both civilians and soldiers were right to perceive in war, as Dwight MacDonald has said, "the maximum of physical devastation accompanied by the minimum of human meaning". It takes some honesty, even if that honesty arises from despair, to perceive that some events, being inhuman, have no human meaning.

Wartime Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War by Paul Fussell; Oxford Paperbacks 1989

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