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The Good War: An Oral History of World War II (1984)

de Studs Terkel

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1,442179,421 (4.16)57
The dean of oral history evokes the innocent idealism, as well as the terror and horror, of ordinary Americans at home and abroad during World War II.
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The best way to read "The Good War" is to sit down with a cup of coffee and envision a WWII vet sitting across from you. He has a faraway look in his eyes and a slight tremor in his hands as he remembers best a single event that most likely changed his life forever. But, don't stop there. Now sitting across from you could be a businessman, a nurse, a dress maker, a dancer, a man who was just a child during the war and thought the battlefield was place of adventure. you might imagine someone who survived a prison camp, or a conscientious objector, or a young boy who thought enlisting would be a chance to prove himself...Terkel interviewed people from all walks of life. Each story is unique and yet, yet hauntingly similar. You hear of young men losing their sense of humanity in the face of unimaginable cruelty: a man remembers watching his comrade in arms throw pebbles into the open skull of a dead Japanese soldier; the smell of cooking cats. Other young men speak of hiding their sexual orientation while trying to appear manly enough for battle (Ted Allenby's story reminded me of Ryan O'Callaghan a great deal). But, you also hear from the women: wives and girlfriends left behind, Red Cross nurses on the front lines, even singers sent to entertain the troops. It is easy to see why this stunning nonfiction won a Pulitzer. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Jun 20, 2020 |
Fantastic collection of interviews and narratives about world war 2. They humanize and personalize this part of history in a way that I didn't know I had been missing. At various times they're depressing, frustrating, sometimes inspiring- and always interesting. There is plenty of variety, with voices from different peoples and parts of society, though that just makes me want to hear and have even more represented. With so much to think about it required pacing myself and reading in smaller amounts at a time. ( )
  reg_lt | Feb 7, 2020 |
If I had to recommend one book on WWII, this would be it. The Good War contains short, personal, first-hand viewpoints of the war from just about every possible perspective. ( )
  gregdehler | Jul 4, 2017 |
Another great book, and I speak as a Brit, whose dad served in WW2 ( )
  mikerees | Aug 16, 2015 |
I think what impressed me most about this book is the way that Terkel was able to preserve the integrity of each person's voice; each interview is truly a unique perspective on the war (even though many of the interviews are built around the same events). Furthermore, the grouping of the interviews, while broadly thematic, is just random enough to preserve the feel of an actual conversation. For me, both of these aspects are huge wins and make this book a unique achievement.

Given the diversity, there are two themes that constantly appear:
1) Fear of a nuclear holocaust (especially in the later sections)
2) Strong anti-war sentiment

Obviously, this may (probably does) reflect Terkel's own feelings but it DOES give the reader a chance to pause and consider some very deep questions about American history & culture: Why was there a huge shift in our attitude toward/enthusiasm for war between World War II and Vietnam (btw, the Korean Conflict was BARELY mentioned anywhere)? Did nuclear proliferation play a key role in that changing attitude as "blowing ourselves off the map" became a real possibility? Why does war look so glorious to those who've never participated in one...and so ambiguous to those who were in the thick of it? (One of the most astounding things to me were the soldiers' affirmations that World War II was a "good war" while simultaneously bemoaning their own inhuman acts and attitudes toward the enemy, especially the Japanese. It seemed to me a very odd contradiction; something that you would think would quickly fracture the psyche in unhealthy ways. But these soldiers had lived for DECADES with these thoughts.

I think this book is too disjointed to be an "introduction" to World War II era, but I think anyone who wants to understand the era must read this book alongside Tom Brokaw's much more hagiographic "The Greatest Generation." Together, I think they provide a very good portrait of the American experience of World War II at all social levels.

A truly tremendous work that leaves me eager to read more of Terkel's oral histories... ( )
  Jared_Runck | Aug 5, 2015 |
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In memory, we find the most complete release from the narrowness of presented time and place. ... The picture is one of human beings confronted by a world in which they can be masters only as they ... discover ways of escape from the complete sway of immediate circumstances. -- F.C. Bartlett, Remembering
What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
I learned that war is not so bad
I learned about the great ones we have had
We fought in Germany and in France
And I am someday to get my chance
That's what I learned in school today
That's what I learned in school.
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The dean of oral history evokes the innocent idealism, as well as the terror and horror, of ordinary Americans at home and abroad during World War II.

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