Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sunday Warbooks: The Good War, Studs Terkel

A review of "The Good War:" An Oral History Of World War Two, edited by Studs Turkel (1984).

This weighty tome (more than 600 pages) is a collection of reminisces and insights on the war. The voices are mostly American, but there are German, Japanese and Russian contributions as well. Even so, the years 1939-41 are almost totally ignored, which is an unfortunate but perhaps unsurprising weakness (given how many Americans seem to believe that World War Two started in 1941) in what is otherwise an immensely important book.

Almost every war story has a chilling image that lingers in the mind long after the telling, and these reminisces are no exception. The tales told here present hundreds of such horrifying, bizarre and amazing images. Perhaps the most memorable is the legless ex-GI, deformed from radiation and now become head of the National Association of Atomic Veterans, recounting his warm welcome in Japan and his treatments there, while the US government shamefully blocked all treatment at the VA hospital for fear of admitting negligence. (And still, the GI spouts patriotic sentiment!)

From the varied accounts --- the bombers and the bombed, the journalists and grunts and top brass --- four main themes emerge. The first is how utterly naive --- with the exceptions of a few groups such as the so-called Premature Anti-Fascists --- Americans were in 1941. A bloody world war was being waged, with the stakes unutterably high for democracy, and the general ruck of Americans were blithe about its progress, ignored the likelihood of attack.

The second theme is the changing attitudes Americans adopted after the war: prosperity became a right, and confidence was very high, among women and blacks as well as veterans. Perhaps that quickly faded among most in the cold harsh light of post-war preality, but the initial rush had lasting effects, including the civil rights movement and the creation of the suburbs.

The third is the pervasive and deep racism of the typical U.S. soldier and his government. As one particularly bizarre example, some white GIs told their English friends that blacks had tails. Blacks were shot and hanged by white soldiers. And while these men were fighting fascism! I fear that in this, we have come only a short way.

The fourth theme is the distrust that Americans came to feel for their government. Vietnam is mentioned by cynical vets again and again; the quick turnaround of Russians as allies-to-enemies is cited. What a pity that this cynicism never blossomed into a healthy rationalism when it came to involvement in government (see, for example, the expedient demonization of our erstwhile Commie-bashing buddy Osama bin Laden and our quondam beloved bulwark against the Iranian menace, Saddam Hussein.) And, since the book was compiled the '80s, there is a palpable sense of fatalism in many of the stories: a feeling the bomb can drop any moment. This, too, is another WWII legacy.


Sunday Warbooks casualty count:

Greco-Persian wars: 1
WWI: 1
Vietnam: 2
Iraq wars: 2

1 comment:

Churlita said...

I have read this and HArd Times. I really like his work.