The book proceeds unchronologically from theme to theme and, while quoting from an astonishing number of letters, poems, and novels - often from other modern wars, especially WWII - it usually has a single author represent the most comprehensive example of Fussell's thesis for each chapter; the main four are Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, David Jones, and Edmund Blunden. As in Patriotic Gore, each of these authors receives a true appreciation; there are few other books that make you want to go out and read so many other books. My library copy is already folded over every fifteen pages or so with a passage I want to write down and remember.
The Great War and Modern Memory is not perfect, but it almost seems ungrateful to mention it. Fussell's broader ambitions occasionally hurt the book, and lead him to draw conclusions that seem untenable to me; he sees the First World War as being a dividing line that it doesn't always appear to be - for example, he writes an entire chaper on the impulse in soldiers to demonize the enemy, and constantly establish Us and Them binaries. This depressing tendency struck me as having little to do with the First World War and much more to do with being human. The book also ends on an odd, unsatisfactory note, moving too far away from the reality of the battlefields.
But when Fussell stays with the soldiers, and focuses on telling their stories, and the way in which they started to realize, together, the horrible magnitude of what was happening to them, he is incredible; he has read so widely, and so sensitively, that he vanishes into their words, and at times seems to speak for all the soldiers in our awful 20th century. It is a cliche, but the world might really be a better place if everyone read this book.
Let me just quote one passage. Everyone will respond to different parts -- especially if they have experienced combat, or known people who have -- but the last sentence of Blunden's quote is what I remember whenever I think of this great, great book:
Whatever the main cause of failure, the attack on the Somme was the end of illusions about breaking the line and sending the cavalry through to end the war. Contemplating the new awareness brought to both sides by the first day of July, 1916, Blunden wrote eighteen years later: "By the end of the day both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. No road. No thoroughfare. Neither race had won, nor could win, the war. The War had won, and would go on winning."