Stephen Metcalf in Slate:
Fussell had written a guide to poetic form and an equally fine critical life of Samuel Johnson when, in 1975, he broke out as an intellectual celebrity with The Great War and Modern Memory, which won the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. The Great War tells the story of the destruction of the 19th century —of its class system and its faith in progress; really, of any way of living predicated on a stable system of value —by World War I. Out of the mass experience of pointless death, a new way of speaking and writing, devoid of euphemism, arose, a plain style we associate with Hemingway (“Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the number of regiments and dates”) but in England may just as easily evoke Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden —writers who saw action in the Great Fuck-Up, as infantrymen soon called it, writers who, as a result of firsthand acquaintance with the trenches, sought a way of making literature without any recourse to elevated literary diction.
The Great War chronicles the loss of the old rhetoric, of high pieties, of sacrifice and roseate dawns, in favor of “blood, terror, agony, madness, shit, cruelty, murder, sell-out, pain and hoax,” as Fussell lists it at one point; the sound of “ominous gunfire heard across water.” Fussell himself fought in World War II, and himself wrote in a candid style. “I am saying,” he concludes one chapter in The Great War, as if replying to a margin note from a junior editor, “that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.”