“The Good War,” by Studs Terkel

The Good War

I’ve been a Studs Terkel fan since I discovered his work 30 years ago or however long it’s been. By now I’ve read most or all of his books.

His work has clearly influenced certain work of mine. When I wrote my own nonfiction book—Prison Conversations—I chose an oral history format. My films are often interview-based. I like to tell the story of “real,” “regular” people, largely by letting them tell it themselves in their own words.

There are differences too; I certainly never just mimicked the Terkel approach. Maybe the biggest difference is I find Terkel’s oral histories somewhat manipulative in their editing. It’s too clear that in his choice of interviewees, the topics he encourages them to address, the way the excerpts are edited, etc., he is carefully shaping things according to the themes, the ideas he wants to get across, as well as just trying to make it more entertaining and a better seller.

I’m more of a “purist” about these things. I let the interviewees themselves shape the project. I don’t maneuver things to ensure they come across as sympathetic, interesting, sensationalist, or whatever. I want them to come across as those things if they are those things, but I also want them to come across as scary, boring, petty, confident, funny, shady, or whatever else if they happen to be those things.

Anyway, one of the things that’s best about “The Good War” is when the interviewees talk about things that are rarely covered in history books, newspapers, etc., or express opinions you’d never expect from them.

War is a horrible thing on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to even begin in condemning it. One of the many things that’s so tragic about it is the unintentional, accidental sorts of killings that arise out of the bedlam and confusion, the kind of deaths that virtually never would be depicted in a movie or in the stories people tell about war.

There are a couple of examples of this early in the book, that nicely bracket the war. First, in an account of the attack on Pearl Harbor, an American notes that some panicky soldiers took to firing the wrong kind of shells at the incoming Japanese planes. The weapons were physically incapable of taking down the planes, but what they did do is land several miles away in the middle of Honolulu, causing numerous casualties, including the interviewee’s girlfriend.

So here we have American soldiers clumsily shelling their own city and killing their own people. It’s just not how we’ve been trained to think of World War II, or of how Americans fight wars in general. But it’s the kind of fucked up stuff that happens in real life.

Then there’s an even more bizarre account of the end of the war. American soldiers in the Pacific theater get the news that the Japanese have surrendered and the war is over, and they respond by spontaneously whooping it up and firing their guns in the air. “Every soldier just took a gun and started shooting,” says the interviewee, “Thirty-two men out of our outfit were killed that night by stray celebrating bullets.”

Thirty-two men in one outfit?! Think about that. The war’s over so you shoot dozens of your own men.

Nobody considers something like that when contemplating whether to fight a war. “Well, on the cost side, if we do win, chances are we’ll be so excited we’ll shoot each other and lose a few dozen men per outfit that way, so we have to factor that in.”

How do you tell a guy’s family that that’s how he died?

But that’s the kind of shit that happens in war. Then multiply that by almost infinity for all the other crazy and cruel stuff that happens just by the very nature of war being war.

Another oddball thing that struck me is how convinced some people were after Pearl Harbor that the Japanese were going to invade the West Coast, or in some cases that they already had. There were random macho teenagers who’d heard rumors of a Japanese landing near their town, so they’d grab their pistol or hunting rifle or whatever and head out to—I don’t know to do what exactly. But they just wanted to get in on the (imagined) action. Like they’re anticipating the equivalent of a barroom brawl where they can kick some ass in some sort of coming of age ritual.

The Japanese were consistently seen by Americans as more evil, less human than the Germans (or Italians). They’re thought of as some sort of ugly little brainwashed fanatic animals or robots, just killing machines that have to be destroyed before they destroy you.

Close to 100% of the World War II veteran interviewees who address the matter of the atomic bombs are thrilled they were dropped, as that meant not having to invade Japan as anticipated, with all the casualties that would have entailed. (By the way, that’s a view that many historians, including at least one person interviewed in the book, say is simply false. They contend that the evidence is that the Japanese were desperately looking for a way to end the war and would have surrendered very soon regardless, without any invasion of Japan itself.)

Speaking of the Bomb, later in the book there’s plenty of chilling material about the effects of the radiation. Not just on the Japanese, but on the American soldiers that afterwards went into Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or were present at various tests, and then suffered and died horribly, years and decades later. It’s like reading about people with AIDS.

Some of that was maybe a matter of nobody knowing any better, but probably a lot of it was criminal negligence, not really caring what happens to the low level soldiers because they’re expendable anyway.

Probably the interview that stuck with me most the first time I read the book—and it was powerful the second time around again—was the veteran whose son went to prison for refusing to fight in Vietnam. The father supported him because he recognized that he was being just as courageous in suffering for what he believed was right as anyone who made the opposite decision and fought in a war. And maybe even more surprising, his veteran buddies—one infers they were probably in other respects a bunch of redneck right wingers—recognized that too and respected the kid.

The point is made by at least one interviewee—and I’ve seen this point made elsewhere—that individual soldiers typically aren’t motivated by patriotism or ideology or even the anticipated consequences for their loved ones back home if they don’t win the war, but by not wanting to let down their comrades, their buddies that they have bonded with, not wanting to lose status in their eyes as a coward or as disloyal. That’s whom they are making the extra effort for.

There’s a striking amount of racism recounted in the book. There was considerable anti-Semitism in the American military as well. (Ironic, you know, because they’re fighting the Nazis and all that.)

But for instance American whites in the military in Europe would warn the Europeans and the women especially to avoid any contact with the Black American soldiers, telling them that they’re inferior mentally, they’re violent rapists, they have tails, etc., etc.

There’s an urgency at the top especially as the war is winding down to look toward the next war against the Soviets, including by partnering up with the Nazis themselves. As one anti-Nazi German says:

My biggest disappointment, for those who’ve really suffered under the Nazis, is the benign treatment of those Nazis by the Allies. We had assumed a housecleaning would follow the occupation. That the British and Americans would come in—as the Russians did—and, first of all, round up the Nazi suspects. And make sure that those who had been in power would not get back in power. Quite to the contrary, within a very short time we saw these same people who terrorized the neighborhoods in charge again. The wardens, the block leaders, all these Gruppenführer, all the ex-functionaries, were back in the saddle. A lot of my friends were so disillusioned they left Germany. One particularly brutal Nazi I worked for at a rubber plant during the war was put back in charge of that same plant. This went on everywhere…

I think Americans were the worst in this respect. They fraternized so readily. The American brass that came over, in an ostensible effort to have things run smoothly, immediately became pals with these old Nazis.

I think it filtered down from Washington. We’d rather deal with the Nazis and have them on our side. Let’s not be too serious about this denazification. Go through the motions, but don’t step on too many toes. We ultimately will need them.

Like I say, lots of stuff you won’t see in textbooks, movies, etc.

Solid book. “The Good War” is quite long, and I’m not going to say it’s a page turner all the way. But certainly there is more than enough here that is interesting, informative, and emotionally compelling that I can recommend it.

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