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One, two, three, what are we fighting for?

By Robert O’Connor.


[This is part of an ongoing series on the works of Studs Terkel. The last book looked at was American Dreams, Lost and Found.]

The Good War is Studs’ most acclaimed book. It won the Pulitzer Prize for history when it came out. It is also the only book besides Hard Times that is titled as an “oral history.” The Good War, like Hard Times dealt with a period in history. And while both are labeled oral histories, Studs puts right at the front of both books that they are “books of memory,” rather than official histories. In this case, it’s a book of memories surrounding World War II.

Like Hard Times, Studs wanted to write the book after seeing younger people unable to imagine what the war was like. Studs wanted to write the book to show them and everyone else what the war was like through the memories of one of America’s shared experiences. What’s different this time is that fewer young people are interviewed – and they all appear at the very end rather than throughout. There are also fewer poems, lyrics or other mementos from the time period. And Studs doesn’t tell his own story of what he did during the war.

He did tell it in a 1986 profile for the Sunday Times magazine – he was rejected from the army due to a perforated eardrum and worked for the Red Cross. He wanted to go overseas, but they wouldn’t let him go. He later found out they’d kept a dossier on him that noted his involvement in a left-wing theater group and other suspicious activities.

There are some veterans in the book, but all manner of people are interviewed, from women who worked in the factories back home to young men who watched the older ones go off to fight. Mike Royko was nine years old when the war began and watched his sister go off to work in a factory, neighbor wives become lonely as their husbands stayed gone and he’d listen to the radio every night riveted by the reports of what was happening. Pauline Kael eventually grew sick of the war propaganda she saw in theaters. John Houseman, co-founder with Orson Welles of the Mercury Theater, worked for the Office of War Information (OWI) supervising broadcasts of items. Studs also interviews Maxene Andrews about the time she and her sisters, Patty and Laverne, were USO sensations with hits like ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’.

One of the more notable interviews is with Hans Göbler and James Sanders. Göbler was a crew member on the U-boat U-505 that was sunk by the USS Guadalcanal off the coast of Morocco on Jun 4, 1944. The remains of the U-boat were salvaged and in 1954 was donated to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Göbler and Sanders met at the museum many years later and Studs interviewed them together.

Telford Taylor, the chief American prosecutor for all but one of the Nuremberg trials, is interviewed in the book. The people he prosecuted were monsters, but could pass as ordinary people. He ends his interview saying that ordinary people can be made to do incredible acts of evil. “If a thousand people are killed by an earthquake, it’s a terrible thing, but it’s not tragic,” he says. “There’s no tragedy because there’s no human element in it. It doesn’t teach you any lesson except to watch out for earthquakes. The hard lesson of the tragedy is that ordinary people can be brought into a condition to do these things.”

One of the sections, titled ‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby’, is about the atomic bomb. Studs had done a program on the bomb in 1962 called ‘Born to Live’, which earned him the Prix Italia that year. Among the people interviewed for this section are survivors, scientists who worked on the bomb, and personnel who oversaw their testing who now suffer from medical conditions. One of them died of theirs before the book came out.

The book’s title is in quotations, with Studs explaining that the phrase came from Herbert Mitgang, an army correspondent during the war. He also noted the absurdity of putting “good” and “war” together.

At the end of the book are the voices of those who were born after the war ended. A young German couple, whose parents were told to fight without understanding why; a young American who grew up in the 1950s and had no conception that the country had ever suffered economically. The last few interviews, which get shorter and shorter until they fade like echoes in an empty cave, concern the effect of the atomic bomb on young people. How they live their lives believing from the outset that the future may not exist. Many of them live like the next World War could start soon and their existence, however solid, would slip away.

[Next: Studs pays tribute to his adopted city in Chicago.]


profileRobert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 24th, 2012.