"The Good War" is Studs Terkel's oral history of World War II, in which he puts aside the conventional linear history of the war and attempts to find out what it was like for those who were really there. In this book, he interviews Americans, Russians, Germans, Japanese, and many other nationalities of people, who were there as soldiers or civilians, and try to figure out what it meant, for the history and culture of the 20th century.
To this ends, he presents around 120 interviews, conducted with many different men and women over the years. Some of these interviews cover people whose battles are much covered: infantrymen fighting in France, marines fighting in the South Pacifc and the like. But he goes much beyond that scope, interviewing people from Germany and England caught in bombing raids and OSS agents who worked behind the lines in Italy. Some of the people interviewed underwent horrible experiences as Prisoners of War. while some merely reflect on how the war changed the lives of civilians. World War II changed life greatly for people, which is obvious, but the subtlety of some of the changes it brought might not be so obvious.
Studs Terkel is in some ways a dissident writer, and much of the book deals with matters that might have been swept under the carpet in a conventional history: the internment of Japanese-Americans, the savagery of the American bombing of Germany and Japan, and the hypocrisy of a war against racist nazis undertaken by a America that still kept its own country and army segregated. There may be a political lean to the people that Mr. Terkel chose to interview, but over 120 interviews, many different viewpoints are revealed. Also, I think that Mr. Terkel seems to support the war, because he views it as a war against fascism.
Another easy criticism of the book is that it is much too short. At around 600 pages, and with only 120 interviews, it barely scratches the surface of what was going on in the war. Some theaters, such as China, are hardly mentioned at all. However, it would be quite impossible to interview all the millions of people who had unique experiences during World War II, so even this little bit helps flesh out a human picture of the war.
I would recommend this book to people who are students of World War II, and also to people who may find the war easier to understand if they can connect to human aspects of it.
As a note on the title, it is surrounded by quotation marks, "not as a matter of caprice or editorial comment, but simply because the adjective "good" mated to the the noun "war" is so incongruous".