A Jaundiced View of WWII, the Asquiths, Red Guards, Louis Kahn, Late Antiquity–and more

By Benjamin Schwarz


The Boys’ Crusade
by Paul Fussell
Modern Library 

n this superb, tough-minded, and impressionistic introduction to the experiences of the U.S. infantry in northwest Europe from D-Day to Germany’s surrender, Paul Fussell confronts the sanctimonious “military romanticism” of Messrs. Ambrose, Brokaw, and Spielberg, “which, if not implying that war is really good for you, does suggest that it contains desirable elements—pride, companionship, and the consciousness of virtue enforced by deadly weapons.”

In fact, Fussell says, “there is nothing in infantry warfare to raise the spirits at all, and anyone who imagines a military ‘victory’ gratifying is mistaken.” Fussell (who as an infantry officer was severely wounded in France during the war) is the author of two of the great works of postwar literary and cultural history, The Great War and Modern Memory and the undeservedly neglected Wartime, which explored the chasm between the sanitized, optimistic publicity and euphemism of the American and British home fronts and the trauma and terror that confronted the fighting men. In The Boys’ Crusade he applies the critical perspective of Wartime to chronicle, in a mere 184 pages, the U.S. ground war in France and Germany. His account is selective: the D-Day landings are so well known that he skips them entirely (but does note the largely forgotten fact that to fool the Germans into thinking that the Allies would land at Calais rather than Normandy, the Americans and the British bombed the former area far more heavily than the latter, so “even the Germans found it hard to believe that their enemy would kill so many civilians merely to maintain a deception”). He focuses instead on small, unnoticed, and invariably unpleasant, if not appalling, details. (For instance, to illustrate the disparity between the relative luxury of the American GIs and the austerity of the British Tommies—which engendered profound ill will on the part of the latter toward the former—Fussell notes that the American Army allocated 22.5 sheets of toilet paper per day for its soldiers, and the British allocated three.) Above all, Fussell honors his fellow combat veterans by treating them not as plaster saints, as Brokaw and Company would have it, but as men—and remembering that when they were shipped to Europe, most were merely boys. To Ambrose, all fighting men “knew they were fighting for decency and democracy and they were proud of it and motivated by it”; Fussell is highly skeptical that men would kill for such abstract and gaseous sentiments, and knows that “the threat of shame and contempt before an audience of valued intimate acquaintances was more powerful than patriotism or ideology or hatred of the enemy in exacting uncowardly behavior from soldiers.” And whereas Ambrose celebrates “the spirit of those GIs handing out candy and helping to bring democracy to their former enemies,” Fussell brings a dose of realism to the behavior of seventeen-, eighteen-, and nineteen-year-old American males (rarely drawn from the most refined circles) who had spent months slaughtering and seeing their fellows slaughtered: the French sold the troops watered-down wine; “the GIs countered by throwing from their vehicles, in answer to begging cries for cigarettes and candies, used and ripe old condoms, ‘filled,’ said one soldier, ‘with our drainings.'” And he possesses the intellectual clarity to note the obvious: “What has been celebrated as the Greatest Generation included among the troops and their officers plenty of criminals, psychopaths, cowards, and dolts.” Sardonic, with a sharp eye for the absurd, Fussell elucidates both strategy (he’s especially insightful on the thorny relationship between the British and American high commands) and the perceptions, behavior, and experience of the troops. His viewpoint—that combat, even combat that defeats Nazi Germany, is without uplift, without virtue, and without purpose—will antagonize some readers and offend the moral narcissism of others. But his book is the best—the smartest, most concise, and most briskly written—introduction to its subject. It would make an excellent high school text (and Father’s Day gift). Those readers wishing to explore the topic in more detail should—please—eschew Ambrose and Brokaw and turn instead to three unusually clear-eyed, and hence overlooked, accounts: The Sharp End: The Fighting Man in World War II and Brute Force: Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War, both by John Ellis, and the often terrifying The Crash of Ruin: American Combat Soldiers in Europe During World War II, by Peter Schrijvers, which is a masterpiece.



The Rise of Western Christendom
by Peter Brown

6433280Very few scholars so dominate their fields as Peter Brown does the history of late antiquity and the Dark Ages (roughly the years 200 to 1000), and his supremacy owes as much to the felicity and authority of his prose as to his truly awesome learning. His Augustine of Hippo, first published in 1967, remains the definitive account of its topic and one of the great scholarly biographies. For the next nearly thirty years he wrote a series of monographs that continually revolutionized academic thinking on late antiquity. In 1996 he published his great distillation, the first edition of this book. It instantly became the essential work on the subject. But research incessantly accrues—and, as Brown emphasizes, there was a “dam burst” of scholarship on late antiquity in the late 1990s (an astonishing number of works cited in this latest edition were published after he wrote the first edition)—so, with characteristic rigor and conscientiousness, Brown has comprehensively revised, expanded, and amplified his original study to produce this even richer, deeper, and more polished summa. Surveying economic, military, religious, art, and agricultural history; employing the terms and perspectives of anthropology and social psychology; and ranging from Iceland to the borders of China, from Beowulf to the Koran, from the monks on the bleak islands off Ireland to the holy men in the Egyptian desert, from the conversions in Scandinavia to Islamic-Christian contact and collisions in northern Syria, Brown reifies not merely the processes by which Christianity rose to dominate Western Europe but nearly every aspect of a profoundly alien world. Or, more precisely, worlds—for Brown emphasizes both the lack of a defined center in late antiquity (a period defined by many “micro-Christendoms”) and the fluidity between barbarian and classical societies, between Islam and Christendom, between paganism and Christianity, and between Eastern and Western Christendom. (In a startling reversal of his readers’ Western perspective, Brown reminds us that “Rome was a frontier city” from 535 to 800. “It lay on the western periphery of a great, eastern empire. Every document which the popes issued … was dated according to the reigns of East Roman rulers … whose careers were determined not by events in western Europe, but by what happened along the eastern stretches of the Danube, on the steppes of the Ukraine, in Iran, and on the Arabian peninsula.”) With its dexterous and confident handling of an array of subjects and disciplines, and its exhaustive and detailed endnotes and bibliography, this book has encapsulated and synthesized a burgeoning field of scholarship at the point of perhaps its greatest creativity and imagination.

Masters of the Big House
by William Kauffman Scarborough

Scarborough is a scholar’s scholar of the slaveholding South. His first book, The Overseer (1966), meticulously and inventively examined a disregarded and vital functionary in the management of the plantations. For the next nearly quarter century he edited the lengthy and complex diaries of the nineteenth-century agriculturalist and extreme southern partisan Edmund Ruffin. Since finishing that monument of academic publishing he’s been at work on this long awaited study of the wealthiest antebellum planters—the tiny cluster of 340 men who each owned 250 or more slaves. In a remarkable feat of archival excavation, Scarborough probes the world of this cosmopolitan, highly educated, remarkably capable, and largely racist group. Not surprisingly, he’s most penetrating in his analysis of the nabobs’ extensive financial and commercial enterprises and of their administration of vast agrarian empires, which often encompassed holdings in multiple counties and states. But he’s only partially successful in his ambition to illuminate the planters’ “attitudes, values, and ideology.” His assessments of their religious beliefs and practices, their educational values, and their treatment of and feelings toward their slaves are thorough, although they break no new ground. He does, however, echoing Eugene Genovese, convincingly refute the arguments of James Oakes and others that slaveholders were plagued by guilt; on the contrary, he avers, they suffered “absolutely no compunction about their ownership of human property.” And he succinctly elucidates the planters’ family structure—especially the relations between men and women. (In the process he demolishes the view that planter women and enslaved women were sisters in oppression, stating plainly that “slaves in the antebellum South were oppressed; the wives and daughters of those who owned them were not.”) He’s least convincing, though, in his “most important” argument—that the master class’s ideology wasn’t antithetical to bourgeois capitalism. For nearly forty years the debate about whether the elite slaveholders were essentially liberal capitalists or paternalists has dominated the historiography. Scarborough, who holds to the former interpretation, overstates and underargues his case and too crudely characterizes his opponents’ position. Although he has unearthed and synthesized an enormous mass of records, general readers should probably wait for the publication of another much anticipated volume: The Mind of the Master Class, by Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, who will have to address Scarborough’s critique of their views.

Red-Color News Soldier
by Li Zhensheng

This horrific book presents the only known photographic documentation of the entire period of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Li worked as a photographer for the Communist Party-controlled newspaper in Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province, and there he recorded the revolution’s sudden grip, its organized violence, the mass hysteria it engendered, and the processes by which it turned in on itself—as purges begat more purges, and tormentors became the tormented. His photographs of orchestrated denunciations and public humiliations, of forced “self-criticisms,” of rampaging Red Guards, of executions, all with the stupid, hate-filled, and oddly zeal-less crowd looming, captured events that combined the dull terror of the show trial with the sadism of the lynching. This minutely documented (the 285 prints were gleaned from the tens of thousands of negatives Li hid under his floorboards), scrupulously honest (the book orders all the prints strictly chronologically, and all are uncropped) record of revolution on the grassroots level should at the very least mortify those who, as morally obtuse college students, toted the Little Red Book (unread and unreadable) in their hip pockets.


Literary Studies

Strangers: A Family Romance
by Emma Tennant
New Directions 

In this deeply sad book Tennant, one of Britain’s most exquisite novelists, allusively and elliptically chronicles her dazzling, troubled family. They were nouveau aristocrats: Emma’s ennobled great-grandfather built a chemical empire on an ancestral formula for bleach (when he died, in 1906, he was one of the six richest men in Europe). His daughter, the brilliant and biting Margot, married the future Prime Minister Sir Herbert Asquith (four Prime Ministers, past, present, and future, signed her wedding register). Eddy, his son, married the dreamy Pamela Wyndham (after Eddy’s death she married Asquith’s Foreign Secretary, Edward, Lord Grey of Fallodon). But Pamela, Tennant’s grandmother, had been frustrated in a premarital affair with her only real love, and Margot (as Tennant writes in her haunting present tense) “makes it plain whenever she can that she pities her brother for being married to Pamela, who gives him so little of her love and has an unhealthy obsession for her children.” Tennant’s account hinges on her discovery as a girl of a cache of Pamela’s letters, the precise contents of which she never tells us, but which to Tennant reveal that all her family’s famous unhappiness was caused by “the loss, the thwarting of love … by a life where love, diverted, must flow underground and feed those for whom such intensity of feeling is not naturally intended.” Pamela’s oppressive love for her children—her “jewels”—cripples three of them: the wayward, thrice-married Clare (whose doomed first husband’s letters from the trenches go unanswered as she carries on an affair with Lionel Tennyson, the grandson of the poet—the best dancer in London, and England’s great cricket player); the decadent and equally sybaritic David; and the effeminate (he was encouraged by his mother to dress as a girl) aesthete Stephen (unforgettably depicted by V. S. Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival). Tennant’s book—first published in the United States in 1999 and now reissued in paperback—is too oblique to be called a family portrait, let alone a history, and although its subtitle is apt, the story is a testament to the destructive selfishness of romantic love. But I think above all it’s a meditation on the reverberations of the Great War, which for Tennant’s class will not cease. On the eve of war, as Tennant reconstructs the scene, Asquith visited the estranged Margot in her room, kissed her, and told her that “the world indeed is doomed to die.” (At dinner with the Asquiths the next night were Churchill and Rupert Brooke. The poet would be dead in a year, en route to Gallipoli, the military disaster planned by Churchill.) Asquith’s son, Raymond, the most sparkling and accomplished man of his generation (as Tennant doesn’t even have to tell her readers), would be killed, as would Pamela’s most beloved jewel, the charming and sweet Bim, who could quote from the Iliad “with modesty and finesse.” Years after 1918 Pamela and Grey were both “steeped in the miasma of death that hangs still over the country,” and in the book’s final chapter Tennant writes that in 1983, at her father’s funeral, she found a wreath from his first wife, of the British Legion red poppies of Remembrance Day, with a card carefully tied on: “In memory of the Lord Nelson“—his ship, nearly half a century earlier, at Gallipoli. As Tennant’s romance attests, for some, still, the Great War is not yet merely history.



Louis I. Kahn
by Robert McCarter

With his obvious and intense indebtedness to historical models (especially Roman and monastic architecture), his infatuation with light, his conviction that construction materials and methods should determine design, and his emphasis on combining monumentality with contemplative spaces, Louis Kahn is indisputably the most humane of the great modern architects of the second half of the twentieth century—and arguably the greatest. Surprisingly, though, few full-length studies have been devoted to him, and in fact Vincent Scully’s laudatory 1962 assessment, which remains the most incisive, was in many ways prophetic, since he wrote it before Kahn had designed his most important buildings. This richly and precisely illustrated book focuses on the buildings themselves, rather than on Kahn’s ideas and theories (thankfully, since nearly all theorizing about architecture in the academy is flatulent and woolly, and that of Kahn, who was a professor throughout his career, is no exception). McCarter’s text and the photographers’ work are especially revealing concerning those buildings devoted to study and reflection—Kahn’s most dramatic, and among his finest: the stark, intimate Salk Institute for Biological Studies (his greatest design); the soaring and serene Phillips Exeter Academy library (McCarter perceptively notes Kahn’s artful devising of the study carrels, each of which he conceived as a “room within a room”); and the at once luxurious and severe Yale Center for British Art.

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