Veterans remember 'the last good war'; The Good War, by Studs Terkel. New York: Pantheon. 589 pp. $19.95
The World War II veterans who spoke with Studs Terkel and whose oral histories form the bulk of ''The Good War'' can be divided into two squads. The first is represented by Ray Wax, now a stockbroker, who says, ''In the war, I was living alongside people I cared about. I was trying to do something useful with my life....'' The second is represented by Alvin ''Tommy'' Bridges, a retired police chief, for whom ''they's no war in the world worth fightin' for , I don't care what it is.''
Soldiers, sailors, and pilots are far from the only people Mr. Terkel interviewed for this, his sixth book. There are over 100 oral histories in ''The Good War,'' and they come from Americans, Japanese, Germans, civilians, POWs, entertainers, government officials, blacks, whites, privates, generals, black marketeers, and those who lived through the bombing of London.
Readers familiar Terkel's work know it is best read in snatches.
Like his earlier oral histories, ''The Good War'' is alive with the feeling of history rather than fact. This is not to say that the book is full of historical error, though a few accounts are inaccurate in small details; rather that Terkel impressionistically lists the human price of World War II and is not interested in statistics or textbook history.
And, again like Terkel's earlier works, the power of ''The Good War'' rests in accumulation: Page after page of memories resonate with emotional truth, with plain-spoken remarks like this one by E.B. ''Sledgehammer'' Sledge, once a marine, now a professor of biology: ''There was nothing macho about the war at all. We were a bunch of scared kids who had to do a job. People tell me I don't act like an ex-marine. How is an ex-marine supposed to act? They have some Hollywood stereotype in mind. No, I don't look like John Wayne. We were in it to get it over with, so we could go back home and do what we wanted to do with our lives.''
Such simple eloquence and honesty are what ''The Good War'' is full of, and Terkel deserves considerable praise for his ability to elicit from person after person such fascinating reminiscences. The difference between regular history and Terkel's oral history is like the difference between reading a box score and actually seeing the game. There is life here, not statistics.