Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Review: Thank God for the Atom Bomb


Fussell, P. (1988). Thank God for the atom bomb, and other essays. New York: Summit Books.

Being your stereotypical culturally illiterate scientist, I had never heard of Paul Fussell until I saw a mini-obituary in the "The Lives They Lived"
(http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/12/30/magazine/the-lives-they-lived-2012.html?) piece in the New York Times at the end of last year. He apparently was an influential critic and essayist, with a good sense of humor to boot. I checked out his book "Thank God for the Atom Bomb", I confess, not to read the title essay, but rather to check out the reprint of his 1987 GQ piece "Taking It All Off in the Balkans". That essay, which includes the memorable line "Clothes, you realize, have the effect of sausage casings", was indeed as fluffy a piece as you might expect from the title. It made for a nice change of pace from grading my ream of 448 take-home exams over Christmas break.

It turns out that the guy can write. "Thank God for the Atom Bomb" is a thoughtful, if provocative, perspective on the decision to use nuclear weapons in WWII. As a WWII vet himself, he has an interesting take on this issue, and is not shy about asserting the primacy of his perspective, being someone whose life was perhaps saved by the decision. I enjoyed an included rebuttal piece, and Fussell's reply, in which he points out that the guy objecting to Fussell's arguments was only 11 years old when the bomb was dropped.

Two essays on Orwell were also quite interesting, but the best piece, written decades ago (shortly after the attempted Reagan assassination, I think), is particularly timely given recent events and political dialog: "A Well-Regulated Militia" proposes that all gun owners be not only licensed but enrolled in the local (well-regulated) militia for regular duty.

All the pieces were both thought-provoking and humorous.

His first wife, Betty Fussell, wrote "Kitchen Wars", a frank confessional of life with a self-obsessed intellectual snob. Also funny and well-written, if kind of sad. How unhappy these people were.

Submitted by Thad Walker.

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