This is a tough one to review in part because what Paul Fussell is essentially arguing in the opening essay is that the dropping of the atomic bomb unleashed untold horrors–the death and destruction intended and known prior to, with the legacy of radiation and cancer and unforeseen consequence–but based on the information at the time, and based on the costs of lives, and seen through the eyes of common soldiers, airmen, and sailors to be the best option there was at the time. The goal of the essay is not so much to make this argument in a full-throated pro-American way, but to complicate and push back against what he sees as a too easily made hindsight argument against the bombing. He specifically references that almost all the critics making these arguments (at least in 1989) had no physical stake in the decision as they were either too young to serve in the Pacific theater, not born yet, or not in a position to be in danger. And as someone who was (he was in the military service at the time), and in light of what other people in danger said, that the decision was ultimately defensible and more complex and complicated than too often stated.
So I think again Barbara Tuchman’s argument for historical mistakes–that hindsight is not useful in assessing them, that alternatives needed to be available, known, and argued for, and while I think Fussell’s question is both not something that requires me to stake anything on, I do think he speaks to a very common historical assessment made over and over in today’s climate, that hindsight allows for a lot of people in no moral position to stake a claim of no consequence bravely, decades on.
The rest of the collection goes back and forth among historical studies, literary-historical studies, and art criticism all through historical lenses, and none are as thought-provoking and vexing as the title essay, but I am more interested in Fussell’s other works.