by Studs Terkel
608 pages, The New Press
Review by Dave Loftus
Since that sailor snogged the face off that woman on Times Square in 1945, it has been universally agreed that the Second World War was the human race’s finest hour. Even with seventy million deaths and enough Nazis to suit the most avid fan playing on your mind, you’d be hard-pushed to actually argue against those glorious six years, when the peoples of the world – including, almost certainly, some of your older relatives – stood up to the leviathan of pure evil with technical know-how and humble grit. Eventually, the good guys won and never again didst the souls of thine Lord do battle upon the face of the Earth.
Except it wasn’t like that, was it? Nothing in history is ever that black-and-white. Probe even an inch below the surface and you’ll find an uncomfortable gaggle of questions gagging for air: Such as, how did a whole nation succumb to the idea of monumental racism in the first place? Why did America get so chummy with Nazi scientists in the post-war scrabble for the bomb? How did the Russians become foes so quickly? Why did Korea happen only five years after that aforementioned smooch? Was Nagasaki necessary?
These questions – and a whole lot more – are what struck me most when I made my way through Studs Terkel’s compelling 1984 chronicle of recorded interviews, “The Good War.” By the way, those are his semi-sarcastic quotation marks hugging the title, not mine. This is a man who is fully aware of the other side of the story he is portraying.
And what a story! Never have I come across a telling of World War Two so detailed and vibrant. Soldiers and survivors from all walks of life, from the lowliest grunt to the smarmiest White House official, had their voices recorded in the sixties, seventies and eighties and their words leap off the page at you. With history documentaries, there is always that danger of being too slick and too edited. Here, the interviewees – certainly all nearly dead by now – were approached by a microphone and told to just discuss what they like. Immediacy crackles in their tales as they reel off what they were doing when they heard about Pearl Harbor or how many girls they slept with on VE Day. For many Allied participants, the war, with its sense of righteous purpose and the unrivalled joy of its conclusion, is described as the highlight of their lives.
Not for all, of course. One motif I found intriguing was that, roughly speaking and with towering predictability, the further someone was from combat, the happier their recollections tend to be. For instance, draft-dodgers, black marketeers and a man who, at one point, controlled all of D-Day’s toilet paper, gabble more freely than a sombre airman who watched Nagasaki burn.
It’s not flawless, obviously. This is an American book after all. As such, the hostilities are bookended by Pearl Harbor in ’41 and the atomic bombings in ’45. The fact Europe had been slogging away since 1939 is only briefly mentioned and some other battles and theatres barely get a look-in. But then again, this is a tapestry of gut feelings and memories – not a text book and, really, nobody will ever grasp the true scale of those tumultuous, globe-changing, rollercoaster years. Not every nook and cranny of the war will ever truly be explored but “The Good War” comes closer to running the gamut than anything I’ve seen elsewhere. Is… is that a pang of envy? Am I jealous I wasn’t there? I’m definitely jealous of that sailor.