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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Postcards from the Front

I've been reading Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory.  (Fussell died earlier this year.  The Great War is the book that made his academic reputation.  Here's Slate on it and Fussell).

It's one of the most amazingly original academic books I've read--a terrific blend of literary criticism, cultural history, and military history that traces how World War I transformed the way we think, evidenced through the evolution of language and letters from 1914 to the 1920s.

It also has some darkly telling vignettes, like this one, from a section on the World War I-era growth of impersonal "form rhetoric":

If a man was too tired to transcribe the cliches of the conventional phlegmatic letter, he could always turn to the famous Field Service Post Card. 

The Card read:

NOTHING is to be written on this side except the date and signature of the sender.  Sentences not required may be erased.  If anything else is added the post card will be destroyed.


I am quite well

I have been admitted into hospital

    {sick / wounded} and {am going on well / and hope to be discharged soon}

I am being sent down to the base

. . .

I have received no letter from you {lately / for a long time}


The Field Service Post Card was most commonly . . . sent--with everything crossed out except "I am quite well"--immediately after a battle which relatives might suspect their soldiers had been in.  . . . 

The implicit optimisim of the post card is worth noting--the way it offers no provision for transmitting news like "I have lost my leg" or "I have been admitted into hospital wounded and do not expect to recover" . . . .  One paid for the convenience of using the post card by adopting its cheerful view of things, by pretending to be in a world where belated mail and a rapidly healing wound are the worst that can happen, and where there is only one thinkable direction one can go--to the rear.


Posted by Mark Moller on August 21, 2012 at 11:21 PM in Books | Permalink


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