Friday, October 12, 2007

The Good War > The War

Unless I've missed something, I'm shocked that no one seems to have made the connection between Ken Burns' recent World War 2 documentary The War and Studs Terkel's 1984 book The Good War.

Studs Terkel was already a well-known author and historian when he published his book. In 1985 I was working in a bookstore when Terkel's book won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. Being a WW2 Geek I eagerly read it and I was completely blown away. It completely changed my perception of the Second World War. To borrow a description from a review ('cause I'm too lazy to think of one myself), Terkel "challenged the prevailing notion that, in contrast to the Vietnam era, World War II was a time of unblemished national solidarity, goodwill, and unified purpose."

Terkel's book, just like Burns' documentary, is an oral history of the war years and the stories are just as astounding and riveting. However, besides combat veterans and folks back home, Terkel also interviewed witnesses and participants from other varied aspects of the war, both Allied and Axis military and civilians, including Germans, Russians and Japanese. In one chapter he interviewed Japanese survivors and members of the American bomber crews from Hiroshima and Nakasaki. In another chapter he interviewed German survivors and members of the American bomber crews from the bombings of Germany. Profound stuff.

However, the most extraordinary part of Terkel's book is that he also sought out and interviewed people who give a perspective on The War that I doubt was ever documented before.. such as war profiteers who made money on the black market in the States, pacifists who refused to serve in the military, minority soldiers describing the racism they encountered from their fellow countrymen, and homosexuals describing their persecution during The War (YES there WERE Gays back then! I know... shocking! I thought Gays were created by Disco in the 70's myself..).

Terkel presented stunning revelations to this World War 2 geek who had read all of the standard WW2 books and seen all of the WW2 documentaries. Of course, these books and films had created the common ideal over the years that WW2 was somehow a "clean" war.. a noble time.. "The Good War". However, War is War... It's brutal beyond imagination and it brings out the absolute worst in humans, both on the front lines and elsewhere. That's why it's war... and, you know what, even back in "The Good 'Ol Days" there was a seamy underbelly of society... It wasn't all white picket fences, crisp suits, and everyone united to defeat the Axis. Humans were Humans back then too. This sentiment was echoed in Burns' documentary as well.. It wasn't "The Good War".. It was "The Worst War".

For the Music Geeks, The Good War is written and presented in the same style as Please Kill Me... Although a lot of people die in Please Kill Me, WAY more people die in The Good War.. Just so you know... 1-2-3-4.

The most profound similarity for me between Terkel and Burns is that Terkel actually interviewed Eugene Sledge, whose compelling words from his combat memoir With The Old Breed drives much of Burns' documentary. As the story goes, one reason why Burns chose Mobile, Alabama for The War was because of Sledge, who (against regulations) secretly kept a haunting and unflinching journal during his time in combat in the Pacific. Unfortunately, Sledge passed away before Burns could meet him.. but as a result he met his best friend who was interviewed extensively by Burns... It's interesting to this History Geek that Terkel was able to interview Sledge for his book 20 years or so before Burns.

Now, I'm not saying Burns copped anything from Terkel; the two works are like twin sons of different mothers.. All I'm saying is if you're a History / World War 2 Geek like Umlaut, who was swept up in watching The War, you should also read The Good War as a companion to complete your time machine experience and education. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to listen to crap music.

Yes, there will be a quiz.