follows in and improves upon the tradition of such great satirists/satire
as Jonathan Swift
and Alexander Pope
It is the worst in man that requires satirizing. Humanity's faults, follies, and mistakes are those that such satirists as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and, today, Paul Fussell target and point out to their readers. Satire is often used as a warning, a way of demonstrating to a society that their behavior might need reevaluation, but it is also used as a protective mechanism. The author that witnesses something he finds deplorable, difficult to understand, even unbearable sometimes can only write about his experiences by describing them with dark humor. Although authors such as Fussell, a veteran of World War II, and Swift, witness to British abuse of the Irish in the 18th century, are able to recount their experiences with seriousness as well as with cynicism, sometimes they find that it serves their purpose more to satirize the situation. It is also a useful tool for communicating advice; sometimes satire is the necessary step to make readers see the flaw in their society.
Satire, then, is both armor and sword. A satirist exaggerates a situation to demonstrate his point. Instead of offering the desired modification of behavior, he amplifies it until it becomes ridiculous. The alert reader then realizes that he is doing so in order to show the result of such behavior. For instance, in "A Modest Proposal," instead of deriding absentee English landlords for aggravating the already desperate situation of the Irish poor, Swift suggests that these landlords take their actions one step further because "as they have already devoured most of the parents, they seem to have the best title to the children." He proposes that a fraction of these children be sold as a food delicacy to the wealthy landlords, thereby decreasing the burden to feed them as they grow and increasing the income of their families. Swift offers this "solution" in order to demonstrate the unreasonable treatment of the poor, their "perpetual sense of misfortunes as they have…gone through by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor clothes to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of entailing the like or greater miseries upon their breed forever." He does not actually believe that eating the children of the poor is the way to release them from their despondency. Rather, his suggestion takes the established behavior of the landlords to its most extreme incarnation and demonstrates its unfair nature.
Like Swift, Pope and Fussell see behavior, usually in the upper classes, that they disapprove of and would like to change. Pope, in his epigrams and shorter poems, points out the more everyday vices in human character: pretension, presumption, unawareness. His chosen form (indeed, the chosen form of many satirists) is short and pithy, as in the poem, whose title is as important to the meaning as the poem itself, "Engraved on the Collar of a Dog which I Gave to his Royal Highness:" "I am His Majesty's dog at Kew./Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?" Fussell points out the same pretension in modern society in his book BAD, which extracts pretentious attitudes in current American culture and describes their BAD ("phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright or fascinating") nature. He and Pope make fun of the behavior of their societies, hoping that those readers being made fun of will alter their actions.
Societal improvement may not be the satirist's only goal, though. By ridiculing a situation, the author who writes of a particularly disturbing situation protects himself from the downward spiral of depression and whining that he may fall into if he writes in a straightforward manner. In "My War," Fussell describes without satire his impressions of the Second World War. As a young infantryman at the European front, Fussell experienced scenes that revealed to him the truly dark possibilities of man. He recognizes his tendency to describe the war with cynicism, "rejecting all attempts to depict it as a sensible proceeding or to mitigate its cruelty and swinishness…and to pass it through a protective screen of irony…which has a hard time of it in this country, especially irony reflecting some skepticism about the human instincts for reason and virtue…(a) dark, ironical, flip view of the war…(and that he) enjoy(s) exhibiting it." He admits that he is embittered, that he uses his cynicism as disguised complaint about his experiences. What he is really hiding is not his complaints about how the infantry fared worse than other branches of the army but his darker awareness, because "those who fought know a secret about themselves, and it's not very nice." Quoting Frederic Manning, he says "War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a peculiarly human activity." It is an insight that colors all his later perceptions of humanity with the tint of cynicism.
Only through satire can men like Fussell, Pope, and Swift communicate the realizations they have made about human nature and human society. Because it serves as protection and as an effective method of convincing the audience, those who perceive a darkness that should be altered in human behavior often choose satire to convey their ideas. Fussell is clearly influenced by both Swift and Pope. No man is above his criticism, just as no man was above the criticism of his predecesors. He writes for the modern world as they did for the neo-classical one, attacking pretention, proposing solutions couched in exaggerated conjectures of the results of not effecting some solution, and, most importantly, remembering sometimes to assess and make fun of himself.