The Good War
The year was 1984, long after World War II ended, but it was a good year for Studs Terkel to write The Good War: An Oral History of World War II (Pantheon, 1984). He’s quite the teller of tales, but in this case, he compiled unedited interviews with folks involved in that hellish era.
I grew up in that era, in a small Iowa town where the sky would frequently be dark with bombers flying east out of Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb. My father served (he was drafted kicking and screaming) for four years, but his “war” was fought not on far away fields, but rather in the icy confines of a Quonset hut in the Aleutian Islands, where he set the broken legs of soldiers learning to ski.
My county, Montgomery County, had the damnable distinction having the highest number of military casualties in the country. It saddens me to know that the citizens consider this an honor, or if they don’t, they never admit it.
Terkel died recently but left behind many writings and ramblings, including the aforementioned 589-page tome, a superb hard copy which I unearthed for $8.98 at Half Price Books. I’d read it in 1984, but decided to revisit it, and as the interviews unfolded, my angst grew. Here’s an excerpt I can identify with, if only because the 14-year-old Victory Girl who is quoted grew up in a hurry too:
You may wonder if Terkel cherry-picked the interviews that best fit his Chicago Jewish activist agenda, but I could find nothing to support that. His interviews are wide-ranging and sensitively balanced with an emphasis on what he says (wisely I think) is the “historic futility of war.” As I read, I asked myself (as I did decades ago) if the loss of one life is of less value than the loss of the 400,000 American military persons who perished. Of course that question is applicable to any and all wars, but that said, we still have people who argue that the 400,000 who perished prevented the loss of many more.
The Good War ranges throughout the United States, touching on talks with both those perceived as enemies and those defined as allies, as well as interviews with the persons who developed the bomb that decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In my mind’s eye is a devastating black and white photograph printed in Life magazine. It clearly shows what must have been a living hell for the thousands of innocent Japanese caught up in the conflagration.
So, you’d be right to ask how a war, any war, can be “good.” However, the author’s interviews (with both men and women) give numerous examples of those who saw it as good, if only because it opened new horizons: travel to far flung places, a regular paycheck, the opportunity to interact with others in a combined effort and (for some) life-long friendships not easily broken.
Women liberated themselves from household duties and took war-effort job, post-war studies sky-rocketed under the G.I. Bill, houses sprung up everywhere as folks collected their share of “The American Dream.” No one mentioned that the dead weren’t around to collect their share.
History has taught us that the “American Dream” was but a myth of nightmarish proportions, for in no time at all we were involved with Korea ‘Nam, and escalating conflicts in the Middle East. As we push into Afghanistan and CNN.com continues to produce a website of war casualties, who among us does not wish that war, all wars, were no more?
This book isn’t just for old gray hairs like me. It’s a lesson for all times. Trust me.