Monday, July 3, 2000

The Good War: An Oral History of World War II

edited by Studs Terkel

A collection of reminisces and insights on the war.  It's mostly American, but there are German, Japanese and Russian voices as well.  Even so, the years 1939-41 are almost totally ignored, which is a surprising weakness is what is otherwise an immensely important book.  The tales told here present hundreds of horrifying, bizarre and amazing images that linger on later.  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 blocked all treatment at the VA hospital for fear of admitting negligence.  And still he 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 so-called Premature Anti-Fascists, Americans were in 1941.  A war was going on and almost all of them ignored its progress, ignored the likelihood of attack.  The second is the attitudes Americans had after the war: prosperity became a right, and confidence was very high, among women and blacks as well as veterans.  The third is the pervasive and deep racism of the Army and the U.S.  Apparently white GIs told the English that blacks had tails.  Blacks were shot and hanged by white soldiers.  And they were fighting fascism!  The fourth theme is the distrust that Americans came to feel for their government.  Vietnam is mentioned again and again; the Russians as allies-to-enemies is cited.  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.  Another WWII legacy. 

four stars