Sunday, May 24, 2009

97 (2009 #22). "The Good War"

by Studs Terkel

Subtitled "An Oral History of World War Two," this was the selection of my local book club this month. I've always meant to read one of Terkel's books, because oral history fascinates me. I only wish the book selected had been Terkel's Hard Times - partly because the Great Depression would have been a more relevant topic today, and partly because it was shorter - 462 pages instead of 589. If my husband hadn't been in the hospital with a duodenal ulcer, I probably would not have finished the book in time - it was a slow read.

Terkel interviewed over 120 people for this Pulitzer Prize winner, with most of the interviews occurring in the early 1980s, about 40 years after the war. The interviews are not verbatim, as can be determined by comparing the text to the recordings available at this Chicago History Museum web site. Terkel edited the interviews, deleting and rearranging material, so one has to wonder if he sometimes did so to emphasize his own left-wing political views. It's quite a contrast to Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation. But then, one has to wonder if Brokaw's interviews were also edited, and if both authors cherry-picked their interviewees to present the message the authors wanted to give.

Nevertheless, "The Good War" is very interesting. Although there are interviews with some famous people - among them former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, Maxene Andrews of the Andrews Sisters, Chicago columnist Mike Royko, and cartoonists Milt Caniff and Bill Mauldin - most of the interviewees are common folk, including a few from Russia, Japan, and Germany. Some soldiers' stories are told (although only two from top brass - an admiral and a general), but the women and men back home are also included. By his choice of interviewees, Terkel is not afraid to point out some of the dark side of "the good war, " such as discrimination against blacks and the emergence of the Cold War.

The title of the book is supposed to be inside quotation marks. In a short foreword note, Terkel says, "The title of this book...is a phrase that has been frequently voiced by men of...my generation, to distinguish that war [WW2] from other wars, declared and undeclared. Quotation marks have been added, not as a matter of caprice or editorial comment, but simply because the adjective 'good' mated to the noun 'war' is so incongruous." Many of the interviewees, although they recognized the need to fight in World War Two, express regret about lives lost and city damage in bombings, and concern about the Vietnam War.

My library has a vinyl recording of the original tapes on which Hard Times was based - I'll have to listen to that. I wish all of Terkel's interviews were readily available to listen to - I would love to hear the interviewees' original, unedited responses to Terkel's questions.

1 comment:

  1. I've always wanted to read Stud Terkel...I'm just too much of an escape readers.

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